Minnesota safety Antoine Winfield Jr. brings a lot to the table as a player: first-team All-American, first-team Big Ten, Big Ten DPOY and three-time All-Academic Big Ten. He also brings the NFL lineage of a Pro Bowl father, Antoine Winfield, as a resource and measuring stick. Regrettably, Winfield also brings two season-ending injuries that put all that he brings to the table in question as he prepares for the NFL Draft. There is certainly some hesitation on whether Winfield Jr. will be another first-round choice as was his father.
Winfield played as a true freshman appearing in 12 of 13 games and starting nine that season, not appearing to suffer any known injuries. He was initially suspended for the 2016 Holiday Bowl game due to sexual assault allegations which were ultimately overturned.
Prior to the season, Winfield Jr. suffered a hamstring strain in the early portion of training camp back on Aug. 8. He was said to have tweaked his left hamstring on a punt block drill. Despite the tweak, he required the assistance of a cart to come off. He was eventually able to return to practice throughout camp though on a limited basis.
He ended up playing in four games through the 2017 season before exiting in the first quarter against Maryland. There does not appear to be video of the exact injury but reports indicate that he re-injured the same hamstring. Regrettably, this hamstring injury cost him the rest of his season, missing the remaining eight games.
The hamstrings are made up of three muscles in the back of the thigh consisting of the biceps femoris on the outside and the semimembranosus and semitendinosus on the inside. Together these three muscles attach to parts of the upper femur and bottom of the hip which is called the ischial tuberosity.
At the other end, they connect to the top of the tibia and fibula, which is the lower leg bones. Due to the muscles crossing over two joints, they have different functions based on hip or knee position. Together, these muscles allow the leg to extend and drive the body forward, along with bending the knee. They also assist with medially rotating the leg when the knee is bent.
Risk factors for injury include older age, previous hamstring injury, tight hip flexors, poor core stability, previous knee injury, tight hamstrings, among others contribute to a hamstring strain. During times of injury, the muscle can be overworked, overstretched or fatigued, leading to part of the muscle to tear, also known as a strain. These types of injuries occur when an athlete suddenly tries to decelerate and change direction, hurdling a player or trying to push their body faster and faster. This can also occur during blocking, trying to maintain their ground as they’re being pushed forward and backward, eventually, the muscle gives out, causing the injury. The eccentric contraction of the muscle where the muscle lengthens under load is a common reason for the strain to occur in the above-mentioned mechanisms. The most commonly injured hamstring muscle is the biceps femoris when referring to strains in the area.
Grades of severity
Depending on the severity and location can dictate the recovery time. Grade 1 tears are the least severe in which a small portion of the muscle tears during excessive activity. This can heal up rather quickly with several days of rest, stretching and light exercise can remedy the muscle. These can last one to two weeks before returning to unrestricted play.
Grade 2 hamstring tear is where a moderate portion of the muscle tears with a greater force, leading the player to limp and be unable to properly use the affected leg as intended. Typically, there is greater bruising and swelling with initial difficulty placing weight, keeping the athlete off it for some time. Bruising, poor functional control and tenderness may occur during this time which could cause the athlete to miss anywhere from four to eight weeks before they are back to playing shape.
Grade 3 hamstring tear is where the muscle nearly or completely tears. It can also pull a chunk of the bone away from the bony attachment known as an avulsion. This is due to the muscle attaching to the anchor point, meaning the harder the muscle contracts, the harder it pulls on the anchor point, leading to eventual overload. At this level of injury, the muscle is quite weak and function is no longer normal. With this injury, the athlete is in danger of missing significant time or can be potentially season-ending. Recovery time with surgery can be anywhere from three to six months with some resources stating closer to eight months. Thankfully, most hamstring tears do not require corrective surgery.
Incidence of injury
Unfortunately, defensive backs have an incredibly high rate of hamstring injuries when compared to other positions on the field with 23% according to one study. Studies vary based on recurrence factors with some studies placing the risk at around 30%. The highest rate for recurrence occurs within two weeks to the first month of the original injury and risk for further injury lasts for up to 12 months.
Furthermore, the risk for a hamstring injury is greatest in the early portion of a sports season, specifically training camp for NFL. Over half of all strains occur during the seven-week training camp. Finally, hamstring strains make up 12% of all injuries seen during training camp, second only to knee sprains.
Likely, Winfield Jr. did indeed suffer a minor tweak of his hamstring which was a Grade 1 strain. He slowly came back in time for the season opener and was able to play another month of football before suffering the injury which was likely a Grade 2 strain. Reports indicated that he was able to participate at the end of practice while rehabbing his hamstring helped solidify this notion. That particular report was published in mid-November, six weeks after his injury, which falls in line with the Grade 2 designation.
Winfield Jr. wasn’t wrong to come back after the original injury, but he may have suffered a worse injury than originally thought and was able to play through for a while. Regrettably, his hamstring may have been like a bomb waiting to go off when it eventually did in the Maryland game.
Despite extensive research, very little could be found regarding the long-term injury rates following an acute hamstring strain. This study did show that those that did suffer a recurrent hamstring strain after a year was due to not complying with the rehab protocol in the study. Those that had followed the rehab did not have issues up to one to two years later. This also supports why Winfield Jr. did not have a recurrence over the past two seasons.
Winfield Jr. was able to return to form for 2018 and appear in four games before suffering another injury against Maryland which once again ended his season. This time, he couldn’t get past the first drive of the game before suffering a left Lisfranc injury. Specifically, he tore the ligament in the midfoot. He ultimately required surgery to correct the issue. Below is the clip where he suffered the injury.
The most-concerning part of the Antoine Winfield Jr. injury is it was a non-contact foot injury.
Winfield, lined up across from the tight on the top of the formation, just starts to hop and limp at the end of this play. pic.twitter.com/BbX7ntHQdt
— Ryan Burns (@RyanBurnsMN) September 23, 2018
A Lisfranc injury is essentially a midfoot sprain that affects the metatarsal joint. This can be present as a fracture or dislocation due to ligament tearing that creates instability within the arch of the foot. This presents as a person demonstrating the inability to create push off when attempting to walk or run.
The mechanism of injury can be anything from direct trauma such as having it stepped on or crushed. A plantarflexed or rotational force through the foot could disrupt the joint complex enough to cause serious injury such as stopping suddenly. Finally, if a foot is plantarflexed and another player falls on their heel, this could cause an injury to the area. The injury can be as simple as a slip and fall to the ground. In Winfield Jr.’s case, a sudden stop to slow down during a routine play felled the star safety.
If the ligaments are partially torn, rest and conservative treatment could allow the foot to heal before returning to activity with a stiff walking cast for eight weeks. However, the injury was severe enough that Winfield Jr. required immediate surgery, ending his season.
Rehab from a Lisfranc injury can take up to six months to return to normal activities and up to 11 months for NFL level athletes. Over 83% of NFL players return to play though their effectiveness is questionable for the following years up to 21% decline in performance. More often than not, offensive skill positions suffer a greater decline in function compared to defensive players. While performance does decrease following the injury, the player does have the ability to return to pre-injury levels of play indicating that the decline is temporary. Interestingly, Winfield Jr. had his best season ever following his Lisfranc injury indicating that he did not appear to succumb to a decline in function.
Winfield finally once again had a healthy season without any injuries, allegations, or distractions off the field. He was able to appear and start in all 13 games, parlaying his success into All-American and Big Ten honors along with Big Ten DPOY. He was also a finalist of the Bronco Nagurski Trophy, given to the top NCAA defensive player.
Despite having two remaining years of eligibility due to the previous injuries giving him medical redshirts, Winfield Jr. elected to declare for the 2020 NFL Draft to maximize his talent while his stock is at its highest.
NFL injury impact
Winfield’s injury history is concerning and may give some teams pause on selecting him highly. Speaking with Cover 1’s Christian Page, he believes that Winfield Jr. is more of a Day 2 target. When asked if he could sneak into the end of the first round, Page did not discount that possibility. He goes further and states that had Winfield Jr. been able to string together multiple healthy seasons, he would be a first-round lock. He closed out his thoughts by stating that Winfield Jr. is the top-rated safety on both his and fellow Cover 1 scout Russell Brown’s draft boards.
Looking at the overall injury history, there is cause for concern but the 2019 campaign allowed Winfield Jr. to silence his critics. The left foot injury should not be a concern moving forward as indicated by the research above. The left hamstring was also highly unfortunate, but he will be nearly three years removed from the original injury come training camp.
Considering he took the proper time off to rehabilitate his hamstring following the second injury and had no further setbacks indicates that this problem should be behind him. He may suffer future hamstring strains as his position is always at high risk, but either injury from before should not foreshadow any potential problems in the NFL.
His 2019 season and pedigree may get him drafted in the first round very soon. However, if he falls, he will not fall far into the second round as his talent outweighs his risks. Teams should be confident in Winfield Jr.’s ability to thrive at the next level. To summarize Winfield Jr.’s talents, the tweet below is a strong endorsement of his potential.
Somebody gonna overthink it. He will be 2x All pro by time he 30. I see that when I watch him. He smart. Go to sleep & think bout the plays he gon make. I hope we get him.
— Tyrann Mathieu (@Mathieu_Era) April 1, 2020
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