NFL Teams Continue to Underestimate Antoine Winfield at Their Own Peril

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NFL Teams Continue to Underestimate Antoine Winfield at Their Own Peril
Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

Antoine Winfield is getting no love.

The soon-to-be 36-year-old cornerback who was the No. 23 overall pick in the 1999 draft was surprisingly released by the Minnesota Vikings in March before the start of free agency, and he hasn't been a hot commodity on the open market. 

Why? 

I'll never know. 

Sure, Winfield's age is probably deterring most organizations from pursuing him, but for the handful of Super Bowl-caliber teams—many of which need cornerback help—the vastly experienced and still rather productive cornerback would be invaluable.

In fact, no free-agent has been as undervalued as Winfield this offseason.

Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

In 2012, ProFootballFocus (subscription required), rated Winfield—not Richard Sherman, Joe Haden or Charles Tillman—as the best overall cornerback in football. 

The Vikings defensive back ranked as the No. 19 coverage corner, but his 14.6 rating against the run made him the clear-cut top run defender at his position. 

Of cornerbacks who played at least 25 percent of their team's snaps last year, Winfield was one of only 11 cornerbacks who didn't allow a touchdown. 

Cortland Finnegan achieved that feat while being thrown at a whopping 105 times, but Winfield was thrown at 90 times, and he allowed a lower catch rate and QB rating than the St. Louis Rams defender. 

Essentially, this ageless wonder was the total package in 2012. 

His fantastic campaign wasn't a fluke, either. 

PFF rated him as a Top 10 cornerback in 2011, and in 2010, he again was PFF's best cornerback. 

In Week 6 against the Washington Redskins, Winfield put on a show. 

On a intermediate drag route, he intercepted Robert Griffin III on a late throw to the sideline. 

However, a few plays he made against what ultimately was the league's top-ranked rushing attack were mind-boggling for a player of his age. 

On the first play, Winfield was lined up in man coverage as the left cornerback. 

He peaked into the backfield moments before the snap, and when Robert Griffin III turned to execute the handoff, Winfield, thanks to his amazing instincts, was already closing in on the much larger Alfred Morris. 

Winfield then lowered his center of gravity and made a form tackle behind the line of scrimmage. 

Spectacular. 

Later, Winfield blew up a screen to the fleet-footed Brandon Banks. 

After a normal backpedal, the heady cornerback recognized the play coming in his direction and knew he had to beat the ball-carrier to the corner. 

He attacked H-back Niles Paul who was assigned to block him, sent him backwards with a powerful jolt and pushed Banks out of bounds for a one-yard loss. 

Winfield's natural awareness and familiarity with the ways offenses try to move the football simply cannot be taught. 

On another play, probably the most impressive of the series, Winfield hawked down RG3 himself on a read-option. 

From the pistol formation, a personnel grouping that terrorized defenses all season, Griffin III faked the handoff and chose to keep the ball on an off-tackle run to the left. 

As usual, Winfield deciphered the play almost instantly after the snap and displayed a deceptively quick burst in pursuit from the back side. 

Before RG3 could shift into top gear, Winfield made a diving tackle which resulted in a modest four-yard gain. 

Could the Green Bay Packers use Winfield? Definitely. How about the New England Patriots, New Orleans Saints, San Francisco 49ers or even the Denver Broncos?

Obviously, Winfield doesn't provide long-term viability, but signing him to a somewhat modest two-or-three year deal certainly wouldn't be foolish for a team searching for that final piece. 

Why?

Well, because, Antoine Winfield is still a really effective, all-around player.

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