MINNEAPOLIS - The NFL Draft is three weeks away, and it could have some Minnesota ties with the Gophers coming off their best season in 115 years.
P.J. Fleck has promised since the day he arrived on the University of Minnesota campus he would put players in the NFL. His most notable example of that in his tenure as a head coach comes from his time at Western Michigan, with wide receiver Corey Davis being a first round pick.
This year, it’s time for Carter Coughlin, Antoine Winfield Jr., Kamal Martin and Tyler Johnson to potentially realize a lifelong dream of being drafted by an NFL team and competing for a roster spot. The challenge now is if they’re working out on their own, due to the Coronavirus pandemic. If they didn’t work out at the NFL Combine, they didn’t get seen by scouts or agents. With NFL team facilities shut down, pro days canceled and the draft going virtual, teams have to go back to game film to evaluate prospects.
Here’s a look at each Minnesota player from last season and what the projections say.
It doesn’t get more Maroon and Gold than Eden Prairie native, and that passion could translate to a career in the NFL. Coughlin switched from linebacker to rush end, and last year was a Second Team All-Big Ten selection with 49 tackles, 4.5 sacks and a team-high 9.5 tackles for a loss. Two seasons ago, Coughlin had 15 tackles for a loss, 9.5 sacks and tied for ninth in FBS, forcing four fumbles.
Coughlin ran an impressive 4.57 40-yard dash and had a 36-inch vertical jump at the NFL Combine. Coughlin could end up a middle to late round draft pick.
Antoine Winfield Jr.
It was inevitable after the Outback Bowl, but it was bittersweet when Antoine Winfield Jr. declared for the NFL Draft after his only fully-healthy season with the Gophers. He led the Minnesota defense with 88 tackles, 3.5 tackles for a loss and three sacks. He also was in the top five in the country with seven interceptions, returning one for a touchdown at Rutgers. His interception in the end zone at Fresno State in overtime also sealed a 2-0 start for Minnesota this past season. He was named a consensus All-American after the season.
Winfield has the bloodlines, with his father playing nine NFL seasons with the Vikings. He ran an eye-popping 4.45 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine, and rarely misses a play in the secondary. He was a First Team All-Big Ten Selection and named the Big Ten Defensive Back of the Year. Winfield is projected as either a first or second round pick. He could be an appealing option for the Vikings, who have two first-round picks.
When Kamal Martin was healthy, he was one of the best players on the Minnesota defense last season. Despite missing five games between injuries and a suspension, Martin finished third for the Gophers with 66 tackles, had 2.5 tackles for a loss, one sack, two interceptions and forced two fumbles.
Martin suffered what looked like a serious knee injury at Rutgers, but only missed two starts the rest of the season. He opted to skip the Outback Bowl to have surgery on that knee, and did not workout at the NFL Combine. Projections don’t have Martin being drafted, but he’ll get a shot with a team as an undrafted free agent.
Tyler Johnson got north Minneapolis back on the map, and he made the most of his senior season with the Gophers. He finished with more than 1,300 yards receiving, a single-season record, and scored 13 touchdowns while averaging more than 15 yards per catch. In his final collegiate game, Johnson caught 12 passes for 204 yards in a 31-24 win over Auburn on the way to being named the Outback Bowl MVP.
He was a First-Team All-Big Ten pick two straight years, and opted not to participate in the NFL Combine. He makes unbelievable catches, including a 1-handed touchdown against Auburn, but also makes the occasional head-scratching drop. It remains unknown where he might land. He could be anything from a second or third-round choice to a later pick.
Minnesota had Blake Cashman drafted last year, and Jaylen Myrick selected in 2017. They haven’t had two players are more picked since 2016 (Eric Murray, De’Vondre Campbell). The last time they had more than two was 2015, which was the last time they also contended for the Big Ten West title. That year featured Maxx Williams, David Cobb, Damien Wilson and Cedric Thompson.
It’s a safe bet that at least three of Coughlin, Winfield, Martin and Johnson will be drafted.