Gopher stars impress at NFL combine


Ben Dettmer

After a record-breaking year for the Golden Gophers’ football team this past season, it shouldn’t be surprising that the four gophers invited to the NFL combine showed in a big way. Headlined by unanimous All-American safety Antoine Winfield Jr., the University of Minnesota also sent linebackers Carter Coughlin and Kamal Martin and wide receiver Tyler Johnson, fresh off an incredible senior season capped off by winning Outback Bowl MVP and receiving AP All Big-Ten first team honors.

This group of Gophers is a special one, as all four players played their high school football in Minnesota and were a part of Minnesota’s recruiting class of 2016. Each of the four has differing resumes and skill sets that will be utilized differently at the next level, but all four will have a shot at making an impact for a team, albeit some more than others. While the combine is not an all-encompassing measure by any means for draft stock for potential, it does provide means of comparing the players that we’ve spent all season watching and analyzing on TV.

A combine performance above expectations can help a player rise up the draft boards, and we’ve seen several players in recent memory fall in the draft after performances deemed subpar. While the jury is still out on whether a players’ combine grade is correlated at all with their success in the league, it bears significance in that it’s the last big chance for prospects to impress teams before the NFL Draft in April.

Let’s take a closer look at how two of our Gophers performed, do a quick synopsis of their prospect grades available on, and gauge their draft stock given the full picture of their draft profiles. It’s worth nothing that grades should be taken with a grain of salt given how difficult precise prospect evaluation is in the NFL.

Antoine Winfield Jr.

After winning the Big Ten’s Defensive Back of the Year Award as the best safety in the conference, Winfield was already heralded as one of the elite players at his position after the season concluded in January. He managed to boost his stock further by posting an impressive 4.45 40 yard dash, which was the third fastest at his position at the combine, and his vertical leap of 36 inches was good enough for 7th amongst all safeties. gives Winfield a grade of 6.36, which by their grading scale means he “will be a starter within first two seasons.” The main knock on Winfield is durability concerns, as he missed significant time in 2017 and 2018 with lower body injuries and has a smaller frame than a typical NFL cornerback. That being said, Winfield has done nothing but rise up draft boards since the start of his senior season and has pro-bowl potential if he can stay healthy. And in case you didn’t know already, he’s the son of Viking legend and three-time NFL All-Pro cornerback Antoine Winfield, Sr. With his pedigree and resume to back it up, Winfield could very well be the first safety off the board on draft day. Worth noting: The Vikings currently hold the 25th pick in the first round and could make a lot of people happy by selecting the hometown kid with and adding All-Pro potential to its needy secondary.

Prediction:  Late 1st round/Early 2nd round

Tyler Johnson

It’s a testament to Antoine Winfield, Jr.’s ability that Johnson is not the face of this year’s Gopher draft class. After an incredible junior season in 2019 in which he set the single-season Gopher record for receptions, yards and touchdowns and was named All-Big Ten First Team, he opted to finish his degree and return for his senior season. He cemented himself as a Gopher legend in his senior season while making an ascent on the schools’ record books and leading the University of Minnesota to its first 11 win season in over 100 years. Johnson broke his own single-season records for receptions, receiving yards, and touchdowns and broke the school record for career receiving touchdowns with an two electrifying touchdown catches in his last collegiate game that put the Gopher, the last one being a 73 yard catch-and-run that put the Gophers ahead for good and put the finishing touches on an absolutely magical senior season for the Minneapolis native. At the combine, Johnson chose to only participate in position drills, but impressed scouts with a nearly perfect showing. grades him at a 6.16, which predicts him to be a “good backup who could become a starter.” Given the unprecedented crop of talented receivers in this years’ draft class, Johnson will likely be a steal for a team in the middle rounds, but his astounding level of production in college won’t go unnoticed. He’s another guy who Minnesota sports fans would love to see in purple and gold, and it’s hard to believe that he wouldn’t be a significant upgrade from Laquon Treadwell as WR3 for the Vikings.

Prediction: 3rd-4th Round