RENTON, Wash. – Antoine Winfield had no reason to suspect anything was amiss when he headed to the Minnesota Vikings' practice facility to work out back in March.
It was a routine Winfield had repeated countless times during his nine seasons in Minnesota. The last thing the three-time Pro Bowl cornerback expected was for Vikings general manager Rick Spielman to call him upstairs and tell him he was being released.
The Vikings hadn't given any indication to Winfield or his agent that he could be let go and they hadn't asked if he'd be willing to consider taking a pay cut to stay in Minnesota. Then on the same day free agency began across the league, Winfield found himself without a job. Other pending free agents had been able to communicate with prospective teams throughout the prior weekend to gauge possible landing spots. Winfield was now forced to play catch-up.
"Definitely surprised me," Winfield said. "... It is a business. I understand that. There really is no loyalty in this game."
Even more surpassing was the Vikings soon began efforts to re-sign Winfield. Head coach Leslie Frazier tried to sell Winfield on not uprooting his family when he could remain with Minnesota. But the mixed messages didn't sit well with Winfield.
"Once I took my nameplate off that locker, it was a wrap," Winfield said. "It was time to go."
Minnesota's loss is Seattle's gain. Winfield elected to sign with the Seahawks for less money than the Vikings were offering to keep him in Minnesota. He turned down a fully guaranteed $3 million deal with the Vikings for a $2 million deal with Seattle that only had $1 million guaranteed. Incentives based on playing time and interception could ultimately push the value of his deal with Seattle back to $3 million.
For Winfield, the sour taste over the way the Vikings treated him was too much to overcome. The chance to join an already stellar secondary in Seattle didn't hurt either.
Winfield sees the Seahawks as a team that is one of the favorites to win the Super Bowl. After coming close to making the Super Bowl with the Vikings in the 2009-10 season, a chance at a ring was the only motivation Winfield needed to sign with Seattle.
"They have an opportunity to do something that I dream about every night and that's win a championship," Winfield said. "...I don't have too much time left. This is Year 15 for me so I'm trying to get it this year.
Winfield is slated to be the Seahawks' nickel cornerback this season. It was a position the Seahawks struggled to find consistency last year. Veteran Marcus Trufant was playing in the role for the first time in his career and wasn't as effective as the team had hoped. Winfield has played inside throughout his career and feels very comfortable at the nickel position.
According to STATS Inc., Trufant allowed opposing quarterbacks to post a 93 rating against him when playing in the slot. Winfield posted the third best mark in the league in the same position as opposing quarterbacks managed just a 74 passer rating when throwing at him in the slot. Not only is Winfield effective in pass coverage but he is known as one of the best tacklers at the position in the league.
"He's fearless," defensive backs coach Kris Richard said of Winfield's tackling ability. "... It's a complete disregard for sanity. He just plays the game the right way. That's what you appreciate about him."
All four starters (Richard Sherman, Brandon Browner, Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas) have been selected to the Pro Bowl or have been an All-Pro pick in the last two seasons. Winfield's addition inside could be the final piece to truly cement Seattle's status as the best secondary in the league.
"What it means to us is that we feel like we can match up," coach Pete Carroll said. "That we have no problem in any matchups, we have some great slot players that we have to play and those guys can match up and will be able to play man-to-man and we'll count on those guys to win their one-on-ones. I feel more confident now than at any time in the years we've been here with the depth and that kind of experience there."