We’re in the thick of declaration season now. The new year has passed, and undecided underclassmen have until January 20 to declare their intentions – either return to college football for another season or enter the 2020 NFL Draft. The draft stock of Minnesota safety Antoine Winfield Jr. is consequently a hot topic. The redshirt sophomore is already one of the nation’s best defenders, and he could in turn generate substantial interest on the draft circuit.

Winfield Jr. was a big-time name before his big-time season. He’s the son of former Minnesota Viking defensive back Antoine Winfield, who was drafted in the first round of the 1999 NFL Draft and went to the Pro Bowl three times from 2008 to 2010. He also generated some buzz in his true freshman season, logging 52 total tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, an 82-yard pick-six, three pass deflections, and two fumble recoveries in 10 games.

After his true freshman season in 2016, Winfield Jr. was expected to be a key contributor for the Minnesota defense moving forward. But in both 2017 and 2018, injuries hampered his ability to produce further. He missed all but four games in both seasons, earning a medical hardship waiver in 2017 and a waiver for a sixth year of eligibility in 2018.

Winfield Jr., now a 21-year old redshirt sophomore in 2019, is fully healthy, and he’s reminding the NCAA just how dynamic of a defensive threat he is. He appeared in all thirteen games on the season, amassing 88 total tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, 3.0 sacks, seven interceptions, including two against Penn State, and two forced fumbles. He led the NCAA in picks at one point, and was mentioned in the same sentence as Chase Young, as one of the best defenders in the Big Ten.

Winfield Jr. helped his Golden Gophers mount a historic 11-2 campaign, culminating in an Outback Bowl victory over the SEC’s Auburn Tigers, one of the nation’s blue-bloods. He has two years of eligibility remaining after 2019, so he could come back to help P.J. Fleck’s squad further establish itself as a legitimate playoff threat. But Winfield Jr. has both a future, and a past, to consider.

The rising draft stock of Antoine Winfield Jr.

After his 2019 season, a serious conversation needs to be had about Winfield Jr. as a prospect who could grow to be one of the best safeties in the 2020 class, if he chooses to declare. He has a promising profile as an NFL defensive back, and creative defensive minds will salivate at the thought of being able to use his talents.

From a foundational standpoint, Winfield Jr. is an excellent athlete who has the burst and agility to punctuate outstanding range as a safety, and his success as a return man only reinforces his athletic profile. He is very proficient at reading plays and closing in on passes in zone coverage, and he has rare focus and hands at the catch point, culminating in a very strong ball production resume.

Winfield Jr. also provides utility outside of coverage. He’s an effective rusher when blitzing, a sturdy presence in run defense, and he actively seeks for ways to remove the football from the possession of the offense. At 5-foot-10, 205, he is a bit undersized, but he’s larger than his father, and he has the athletic traits to compensate for however his size might detract from his upside.

With his 2019 season, Winfield Jr. is effectively an ascending NFL Draft prospect, and if he were to declare, he could rise higher than some expect. LSU’s Grant Delpit, who was penciled in as the top safety in the 2020 NFL Draft before the season, took a slight step backward, and Alabama’s Xavier McKinney, while similar to Winfield Jr. with his ball production and versatility, doesn’t quite have the amount of hype around him that the Minnesota product does.

With his ability to will the ball into his hands, Winfield Jr. has a certain authority at safety that most of the prospects in the 2020 NFL Draft lack. His redshirt sophomore title is deceiving in this sense; he has four years under his belt. On the field, he’s wasted no opportunity in boosting his draft stock, and off the field, he’s clearly taken the time to strengthen his body and further dissect the game. The sweet spot for Winfield Jr. looks to be the second round, but in this class, a first-round rise is very possible.

His injury history will be a red flag to some, as will his size, but he has enough going for him to seriously consider declaring for the NFL Draft. He has the potential to follow in his father’s footsteps, and realistically, does he want to risk another injury at the collegiate level in 2020, if his draft stock is higher than it’s ever been right now? He’ll be 22 years old, NFL age, in August, and if he declares now, he can ensure that he maximizes his NFL career in every way possible.

With an unproven safety group around him, Winfield Jr. has a chance to capitalize on both circumstance and opportunity in the 2020 NFL Draft. With every passing game, it seems as though the draft stock of Antoine Winfield Jr. only grows stronger, and with the deadline to declare nearing, his decision will only generate more and more anticipation.