Extending Antoine Winfield Jr. was the Bucs’ best, only option

Sometimes, breaking the bank is the exactly the right thing to do. The Buccaneers signed All-Pro safety Antoine Winfield Jr. to a record-breaking four-year, $84.1 million dollar contract yesterday, and it was their best and only option for him.

For many years prior to drafting Winfield Jr., the Bucs had to overpay players, typically free agents coming from other teams, to sign in Tampa Bay. It rarely worked out for the Bucs, trapping the team in a vortex of mediocrity for more than a decade.

Making Antoine Winfield Jr. the highest-paid defensive back in NFL history is not that. He earned every cent of his new contract and will likely continue earning it over the life of the deal.

The do-it-all safety is a very rare breed in today’s NFL. Most safeties specialize in either defending the run or the pass, rarely both, and even fewer can call themselves reliable pass rushers.

Winfield Jr. ticks off all three boxes. Since he was drafted in 2020, Winfield Jr. leads all safeties in fumbles forced (11), sacks (15) and quarterback hits (21) and is among the top five in solo tackles (266) and tackles for a loss (18). He is also 11th in passes deflected (27) and 19th in interceptions (7).

His growth as a pass defender last year is what put him over the top as one of the best defensive players in the NFL. In addition to recording career highs in interceptions (3) and pass breakups (8), Winfield Jr. had the highest forced incompletion rate (21%) per Pro Football Focus.

Winfield Jr. was also a primary reason the Bucs made the playoffs in 2023. His knack for big plays single-handedly led to a few victories. Winfield Jr.’s sack-fumble of Kirk Cousins in Week 1 led to a Chase McLaughlin field goal, a three point margin that gave Tampa Bay the victory. In Week 18 with the playoffs on the line, his forced fumble of DJ Chark just before he broke the plane to score kept Carolina from taking the lead and ultimately kept them from mounting a comeback.

Winfield Jr. brings talent and tenacity that teams simply do not let slip away. He easily would have made the same if not more had Tampa Bay let him walk away in free agency. Resetting the defensive back market is a small price to pay relative to the damage it would have done to the talent level and morale of the Bucs’ roster.

Besides his true game-breaking ability, the Bucs also had to extend Winfield Jr. this offseason for very practical reasons. Heading into this week, Tampa Bay had less than $1 million in cap space, not enough even to sign their draft class.  With the new contract, Winfield Jr.’s 2024 cap figure is around $7 million, creating $10 million in cap space according to Fox Sports’ Greg Auman. The Bucs had already leveraged the other extensions they signed this offseason to maximize cap space, so only Winfield Jr.’s deal could give them the necessary breathing room.

The contract is a symbol of what Winfield Jr. is expected to be moving forward: a foundational pillar of not only Tampa Bay’s defense, but the entire team. He was voted a captain for the first time in 2023, and it is a near-impossibility that he will not be again. Whatever happens in 2024 and beyond, Antoine Winfield Jr. will be a central figure in Tampa Bay football.

Story originally appeared on Buccaneers Wire