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Rookie Recap: Antoine Winfield Jr. continues his chase for Defensive Rookie of the Year

It’s never too early to highlight potential post-season award contenders.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers v Denver Broncos Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

At 2-1 the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have gotten their 2020 campaign off to a relatively successful start. Wins against the Carolina Panthers and Denver Broncos have outweighed the Week 1 loss to the New Orleans Saints thus far as the Bucs currently sit in first-place in the NFC South.

Two players in particular have stood out on this star-studded roster as Tristan Wirfs (Iowa) and Antoine Winfield Jr. (Minnesota) have found ways early in their careers to help out the franchise.

Week 3 against the Broncos was arguably Wirfs’ worst outing as a pro, but still solid overall. Meanwhile, his defensive teammate continues to impress while displaying ability and football IQ which measures beyond his years of experience.

We’ll talk more about those two and how the freshman class performed this past weekend overall, in our Week 3 “Rookie Recap”!

INACTIVE ROOKIES

First things first, lets go over the inactive rookies from each side of the ball.

For the Buccaneers, running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn (Vanderbilt) was not active and therefore did not make his NFL debut. Cam Gill (Wagner) and Khalil Davis (Nebraska) were also inactive for the defense.

The home squad Denver Broncos had two inactive rookies on offense with neither interior offensive lineman Netane Muti (Fresno State) or tight end Albert Okwuegbunam (Missouri) dressing for the game.

ACTIVE ROOKIES

As usual, Tristan Wirfs and Antoine Winfield Jr. were the two starting rookies for the Buccaneers. In Week 3 however, they were joined by wide receiver Tyler Johnson (Minnesota) on the active roster for the first time.

Wirfs played on every offensive snap while contributing on special teams five times as well. For Winfield, he played all 63 defensive snaps along with eight on special teams.

Johnson appeared on twenty-one offensive snaps (31%) with no special teams responsibilities.

NFL: Tennessee Titans at Denver Broncos Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

For the Broncos, they’re a little more rookie influenced as Lloyd Cushenberry (LSU), Jerry Jeudy (Alabama), and KJ Hamler (Penn State) all started on the offense. The defense carried a bit more experience with cornerback Michael Ojemudia (Iowa) playing as the only starting rookie on that side of the ball.

Wide receiver Tyrie Cleveland (Florida), cornerback Essang Bassey (Wake Forest), longsnapper Jacob Bobenmoyer (Northern Colorado), and defensive lineman McTelvin Agim (Arkansas) were all active in depth or special teams roles for the Broncos.

For the home rookies, Cushenberry led the way playing all 63 offensive snaps for Denver while Ojemudia played on nearly every defensive snap, missing just two throughout the game.

Hamler got the lion share of rookie wide receiver reps with 58 while the banged up Jeudy saw the field 46 times. Cleveland saw twelve snaps on special teams, and just four with the offensive unit.

Bassey played just over 50% of the Broncos’ defensive reps while contributing to five special teams plays, and Agim stepped on the field fourteen times total.

IMPACT PLAYERS

With zero catches on zero official targets it’s hard to say Johnson did anything more than get his feet wet. Stepping onto the NFL stage is of course part one of the professional career for every player, but I’m sure the highly touted fifth-round pick will be trying to attract a target or two from Tom Brady against the Los Angeles Chargers in Week 4.

Wirfs and Winfield however, were extremely impactful evident in their 100% snap rate and in the on field production.

Winfield finished tied for third on the defense with six tackles and also came up with a sack and pass defended. He’s received high praise from coaches, teammates, media, and fans for playing ‘beyond his years’ looking more like a seasoned veteran than a rookie who had no mini-camps, OTAs, and preseason.

On the offensive line, Wirfs realistically had his worse outing as an NFL lineman, but this isn’t saying much given how he performed against Cameron Jordan (Saints) and then against the Carolina Panthers. Honestly, Wirfs could have had a relatively clean game and still possibly had his worst outing.

Through three weeks, the Buccaneers’ offensive line is 24th in the NFL in adjusted line yards according to Football Outsiders. However, the team is 28th when running off left tackle Donovan Smith while ranking 20th when running to Wirfs’ right side. Of course, this isn’t all because of Smith and Wirfs individually, but it helps the excitement surrounding the first-round pick when the team can run to his side more effectively than the other.

As weeks come and go of course, everyone hopes to see all of those rankings improve, but pass protection is much better coming in with a 5.3% adjusted sack rate. The percentage ties them with the Pittsburgh Steelers and Los Angeles Chargers for eighth-best in the NFL.

Through three weeks, Wirfs has the second-best grade at 73.9 according to Pro Football Focus with fairly even grades between his pass and run blocking thus far and has played more snaps than any other rookie offensive tackle. Overall, PFF has Wirfs ranked as the 25th best offensive tackle in the NFL, and he has the seventh-fewest pressures allowed among offensive tackles with 117 snaps or more.

For the Broncos, Jeudy (nine targets) tied with tight end Noah Fant (ten targets) for the team lead with five catches. His 55-yards led the way with his longest catch of the day coming in the fourth-quarter when he connected with second-year quarterback Brett Rypien.

Hamler finished the game with three catches of his own on five targets for 30-yards. The lone rookie starter on defense, Ojemudia had four tackles including one for a loss.

Along the offensive line, Cushenberry anchored an offensive line which gave up five sacks to the Buccaneers defense and ranks 30th in the league with a 10.6% adjusted sack rate.

It’s been a rough start to his career as the rookie center leads the league’s snappers with eleven pressures allowed and sacks surrendered in 2020.

PLAY OF THE GAME

Winning on first down goes a long way towards setting up advantageous scenarios on third, which then leads to greater chances of getting off the field for defenses.

With a fifteen point lead, the Bucs defense had added a safety to the scoreboard already, but the offense wasn’t doing much to help extend the lead over the Broncos.

Denver had the ball at their own fifteen-yard line with a chance to make it a one-score game if they could get into the end zone for the second-time. On first down, the Broncos dialed up a pass which had rookie receiver KJ Hamler running almost to the sticks before turning back for what could be a solid gain close to another set of downs, and outside of their own 20-yard line.

It would have worked too, as Carlton Davis III was giving a lot of respect to Hamler’s speed, allowing the receiver to get into his route and break cleanly with no adversity.

The pass would have been completed for at least eight-yards if it weren’t for the heads up play by rookie safety, Antoine Winfield Jr.

Coming on a corner blitz, the Broncos identified Winfield pre-snap and quarterback Jeff Driskel followed the old, ‘throw at the blitz’, advice passed down through generations. He didn’t target the vacated receiver though, which was smart because linebacker Devin White was creeping in on Jeudy and likely would have come up with a big interception had the ball gone that way.

Instead, Driskel likely saw the soft coverage pre-snap and tried to take advantage of it. Not so fast said the rookie safety who not only got up to deflect the ball, but did so in a manner which opened up the opportunity for another Bucs takeaway.

The end result was an incomplete pass, but it brought up 2nd-and-10, instead of 2nd-and-Short or even a new first-down. There’s no way to say what would have happened if Winfield hadn’t made the smart play instead of getting tunnel vision on his attempt for a second sack of the game, but that’s the point. We’ll never know, because the rookie made an incredibly smart football play, and didn’t give his opponent a chance to get rolling.

It was Denver’s fifth three-and-out of the game, and helped ensure a slowed Tampa Bay offense didn’t lead to a comeback for the Broncos.

That’ll do it for this week’s “Rookie Recap”! Thanks to everyone who read this 1300-word dive into the impacts freshmen NFL players are making in this 2020 season. Come back next week as we do it again after the Tampa Bay Buccaneers host the Los Angeles Chargers!