5 Ways the Vikings Can Replace Antoine Winfield
In order to properly come up with five ways that the Vikings can replace Winfield this season, you have to factor in all of the various ways he impacted the team.
Whether we're talking about his ability to cover wide receivers, his unmatched skills stopping the run or his leadership traits in the locker room, even at 36 years old, replacing Winfield won't be an easy task.
But to quote former President Lyndon Johnson, "Yesterday is not ours to recover, but tomorrow is ours to win or lose."
Meaning as much as we appreciate and respect one of the greatest defensive players to ever throw on a Vikings uniform, it's now time to move forward without Winfield and make sure the defense doesn't skip a beat.
With all of that being said, start the slideshow below and check out five ways the Vikings can replace Antoine Winfield this season.
*All stats provided by Pro-Football Reference unless noted otherwise.
Develop Josh Robinson
When Antoine Winfield left Minnesota, the team lost one of the most efficient slot corners in all of football.
Whether he was covering short-yardage passes or stopping the run, his incredible ability to make plays in the slot is a void the Vikings have to address right away.
To replace his production in the slot, one plan the Vikings have is letting 22-year-old Josh Robinson try to help fill the Grand Canyon-sized void Winfield left behind.
Although he boasts great speed and has fresh legs, Robinson has absolutely zero experience in the slot.
While his coverage skills shouldn't suffer much, all of the extra responsibilities required to play the slot position in the NFL is still quite a daunting task.
If things work out this summer and Robinson ends up playing that position, then Vikings coaches will have to understand that with no experience, Robinson will be forced to learn on the fly in game situations.
But if they can guide him and help him grow into the role this offseason, fans should be excited about the things Robinson can do for this team.
According to Cory J. Bonini of KFFL, coming out of the University of Central Florida, Robinson was always dubbed as a competitive player who could read and react well while constantly coming across as a willing tackler.
If he can learn the position, the strengths of his game should give Robinson a real chance to succeed in the slot and pick up at least some of the slack Winfield left behind on his way to Seattle.
Find a Leader Among the Youth
Aside from his on-field abilities, a big loss for the Vikings defense this season will be the leadership and guidance Winfield provided this young secondary with.
His departure means someone needs to step up and become the vocal leader of this blossoming secondary.
That's where second-year safety Harrison Smith comes into the picture.
Coming off of a stellar rookie campaign in which Smith ended up with 104 combined tackles—74 of those being solo efforts—the impressive Smith is the clear-cut choice to fill that leadership role.
Talking to Brian Hall of Fox Sports about helping other guys out, Smith said, "I feel like I'm a guy that somebody can ask questions to, because I've been through a year. Not that I'm, by any means, a veteran, but I've got a little experience under my belt."
An absolute star in the making, if he can make a quantum leap forward this season and become the vocal leader of this young Vikings secondary, the loss of Winfield won't sting quite as much.
The Xavier Rhodes Factor
Rhodes, who has reportedly impressed during his time at rookie minicamp, was scouted by WalterFootball.com as a solid coverage corner who gets extremely physical when lining up against opposing wide receivers.
Although comparing players isn't always fair, something that both Rhodes and Winfield posses is an extremely physical game.
Whether we're talking about in-coverage or stopping the run, both of these guys play super-aggressive whenever they step onto the field.
Already a talented man coverage corner, Rhodes will have to improve in zone coverage if he hopes to thrive in Minnesota's Tampa 2 style of defense.
Regardless, his supreme skills of jamming wide receivers and shattering opposing defenders in run support should give Vikings fans that warm-and-fuzzy feeling of vintage Winfield this season.
In a division stacked with big, talented wide receivers, if Rhodes is developed properly, his instincts and natural football ability will allow him to become a Winfield-like game-changing cornerback for many years to come.
Defend Short-Yardage Situations
Although he's still solid in coverage—according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Winfield ranked as the 19th overall best coverage cornerback in the NFL—the true strength of his game is his ability to stop the run and obliterate people in short-yardage passing situations.
Using Pro Football Focus' rankings (subscription required), in run defense Winfield graded out as a 14.6. To put that into perspective, the second-ranked run-stopping cornerback, Chris Harris Jr., graded out as a 7.7.
Grading out nearly double the amount of every other cornerback in the NFL, Winfield's mind-blowing talent to read and react to runs and short-yardage passes sets him apart from everyone else at the position.
That ability to slow down an opposing defense in short-yardage situations is something this Minnesota defense will have to adjust to if it wants to move past Winfield's tenure quickly and efficiently.
Using players like Xavier Rhodes—who at times in college looked like a fantastic run-stopping cornerback—and Josh Robinson, the Vikings defense will need some of the younger guys to step up and make an impact.
But it doesn't just stop at the cornerback position. The linebacking corps needs to also find a way to plug the short-yardage passes and runs in Winfield's absence.
Considering that this division is historically pass-happy—in 2012, the Detroit Lions ranked first in pass attempts, while the Green Bay Packers ranked 16th—the Vikings have to realize that although the run defense is important, it's the short-yardage passing game that is a huge area for concern this season.
Embrace Defensive Creativity
When a team loses a quality playmaker on its roster, outside of younger players stepping up to help fill the void, it's up to the coaching staff to adjust to best serve the team.
It's common knowledge that innovation is something the NFL thrives off of.
From the New England Patriots incorporating some of Chip Kelly's offensive theories into their game to the installation of the now infamous read-option, NFL coaches are always looking for new ways to improve their teams.
But even though it's talked about less, innovation is not just an offensive thing.
The offenses have spread the field a lot more; you have more formation variations, empty-backfield sets, teams going three or four receivers every time and tight ends that are good receivers, there's more audibling, you have the rule changes. It's a little bit of everything that's made it more offense-friendly than it was in the late 1980s through the late '90s. And so if you have a good quarterback, you can play good offense with average personnel around him. It's much harder now to play good defense with average personnel.
For Minnesota this means head coach Leslie Frazier and defensive coordinator Alan Williams need to find ways to get creative and improve on their Tampa 2 scheme.
Whether it's developing more of a hybrid way to allow cornerbacks Xavier Rhodes and Chris Cook to utilize their man coverage skills, or mixing more pressure outside of the historic four-man rush, this team will need to adapt in order to not just replace Winfield but move forward as an elite defensive unit.
When it comes down to it, financially it was a great decision to let Winfield walk. But even at 36 years old, he is still producing at a high level.
Replacing him will be a daily grind that this team needs to focus on if it wants to grow and improve in 2013 and beyond.