'Sit back and watch:' Why Juwann Winfree believes it's (finally) his time
The Packers need someone to step up at wide receiver in 2022. Why not Winfree? In great detail, he explains how the last eight years of chaos prepared him to replace Davante Adams. (Really.)
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — He can sense the unease from miles away. It’s a quiet spring evening and Juwann Winfree is peacefully contemplating how far he’s come and how far he still aims to go, right here, outside of a home he’s renting.
Palm trees drape over the small white house. The only sound is the occasional car crawling along a quiet side street.
Back in Wisconsin? Wherever you’ll find a Packers fan? The concern is quite loud. After Davante Adams bolted the Green Bay Packers (and Aaron Rodgers) for the Las Vegas Raiders (and Derek Carr), after Marquez Valdes-Scantling signed with the Kansas City Chiefs, the depth chart at wide receiver is scary thin. Each offseason, the national airwaves are flooded with tears that the franchise doesn’t do enough for their quarterback. Such nonsense is typically nothing but lazy offseason filler. But at the point of this conversation, in late March, worry seems justified.
Even the team’s president, Mark Murphy, felt the need to assure folks help was on the way.
It was right around this time that Winfree’s name kept popping up on the sad TV graphic exposing the team’s lack of experience at receiver. His inclusion was comical to most all observers. Right next to Winfree you’d see an “8,” as in “8” career receptions for 58 yards. Woof. So, to the Packers fans who are nervous… scared… wondering “What in God’s name is this team thinking?” what does Juwann Winfree have to say? Seated on his front porch in a black t-shirt with orange “FRIENDS” lettering, Winfree pauses for several moments.
“Sit back and watch,” he begins. “If you want to see what I’m about, see at training camp. We have open practices. You’ve got somebody who’s going to be a playmaker. Just sit back. Be patient.”
He isn’t a fan of social media, but he sees it. He can’t avoid “all the posts” mocking the Packers’ receivers. None of it bothers him.
“My confidence and my mindset is at another level,” Winfree says. “That shit won’t interfere with the person I know I am. Just know you have a dog.”
Green Bay did get around to beefing up the position by signing veteran Sammy Watkins — who is out of this world — and drafting a trio of wideouts: Christian Watson (second round, 34th overall), Romeo Doubs (fourth round, 132nd) and Samori Toure (258th). Allen Lazard returns. There’s always a chance things click for 2021 third-rounder Amari Rodgers, a few intriguing options remain on the open market and, for what it’s worth, the team still has one of the QB’s best friends on the roster (Randall Cobb). Let’s not get it twisted: It’s on the $150.8 Million Dollar Man to elevate those around him, not the other way around. This isn’t Philadelphia or Miami where front offices are (wisely) signing weapons to help their young quarterback take the next step.
When the army of alarmists predictably return in training camp, remember the state of affairs is not dire. Simply, one or two young receivers from this lot must break through. And one player nobody should forget about is the 6-foot-1, 210-pound receiver right here. He makes that much clear. What a maddening, enlightening, winding road it’s been to get to the most important summer of his football life.
Like everyone else, Winfree was stunned to see Adams leave. He’s happy for him. Thankful, too. He learned a ton from Emmanuel Sanders in Denver and Adams in Green Bay.
Quickly, however, Winfree viewed Adams’ exit as an opportunity.
“I feel like I can be a guy who steps up,” Winfree says, “and makes big plays to help this team win.”
Maybe everyone else sees him as name soon to be forgotten, the answer to a trivia question at a bar on Washington Street. Juwann Winfree himself — and the Packers, apparently — certainly do not.
“They believe in me,” Winfree says. “They believe I can have a big role this year in this offense. They always compare my game to 17. They see the similarities of our games. They point it out. They know what they have. I feel like I’ve been grooming these past two years and learning what it takes to be a winner and how to play at that high level. I think they believe I can help out.”
Informed that those are massive shoes to fill, Winfree doesn’t back off with a nod of the head.
Later this night, it hits him. He’s still thinking about that question suspended in the South Florida humidity — what he’d tell anyone worried about this receiver unit — and feels compelled to reach out with four rapid-fire texts for the people…
“Don’t panic is what I’d tell the fans
Feel everyone in life is quick to panic or overreact
When they go through sudden change.
Change can be good!”
One thing’s for certain: The dude is due for a break.
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The arduous road to this surge of self-belief is full of detours, potholes, dead-ends.
Juwann Winfree grew up in Englewood, N.J., and was even given the key to that city in 2019. Dad played basketball overseas, Mom was a nurse and both raised Juwann, their third of three kids, to sincerely work for everything. As the scholarship offers poured in for this four-star recruit, Mom told him that his siblings bought their first car so he’d do the same. Countless powerhouses offered the Dwight Morrow H.S. star full rides. Michigan, Georgia, Cincinnati, South Carolina, West Virginia to name a few.
Winfree chose Maryland, and it didn’t last long. But one conversation with future NFL star Stefon Diggs stood out.
Back then, he wasn’t much of a faith-based fellow. Mom had dragged him to church as a kid but, eh, it never did much for Winfree. He’d always think, Why are we even here? Now, at Maryland, players were picking who’d say the prayer after practices. Out loud, Winfree admitted he did not really believe in God. That’s when Diggs told him, “It’s because you haven’t really been through anything yet.” If the words rang hollow then, they absolutely did not the next eight years.
A couple months later, Winfree was suspended by the team and, as he puts, “My whole life changed.”
Winfree was suspended during that 2014 season for failing a drug test. Then, in June 2015, he was suspended indefinitely. He won’t say what he did but, basically, Winfree had the option of sitting out for a full year at Maryland or transferring. Head coach Randy Edsall didn’t tell him how long his suspension would last, but Winfree saw that’s how he handled players in the same boat. Which, to him, would’ve been a “waste.” He knew his time at Maryland would never be the same again. A new horde of recruits without baggage would be coming in hot.
So, he scrambled. He needed to find a new home.
That July, Winfree tried contacting all of those schools who were just courting him one year prior, something like a 19-year-old telling the girls he previously snubbed that, now, he was available… and all of these schools told him it was too late. Except one, anyways. The University of Pittsburgh stayed in touch, and their advice? Go the JUCO route. Spend a year picking up the pieces, and they’d be ready. Looking to re-center himself, back home, Winfree rummaged through one of his mother’s boxes of books in the basement and found a book by Joel Osteen that published just a few months prior. He stuck that book, “Your Best Life Now: 7 Steps to Living at Your Full Potential,” into his luggage and headed to Coffeyville (Kan.) Community College to get his life back on track. He read the book daily.
Says Winfree: “It changed the whole way I think and work.”
His main takeaway? Life does not always go as planned but you need to realize there’s a bigger plan, a better plan in the works. Speaking positively can go a long way, too. Verbalizing optimism can increase the odds of positive outcomes. That’s why Winfree started to post messages and scriptures online. It all started in junior college. He’d post something every gameday in an effort to rediscover himself.
Maybe that’s why he does not trash the Terps for giving up on him. He learned a lot at Maryland simply from watching Diggs closely. (“I learned what an elite receiver looks like and how to put all the tools together.”) And it’s not like the coaches booted his ass out the door, either. Before heading to junior college, Winfree had an exit meeting with his position coach and that coach, former NFL Pro Bowler Keenan McCardell, wrote down a list of things Winfree could improve.
One piece of advice stuck. McCardell told him to catch 200 balls a day.
McCardell believed Winfree could be an NFL wide receiver and wanted to help.
At Coffeyville, Winfree was able to prove his worth with 55 receptions for 837 yards and seven touchdowns. His quarterback was Riley Ferguson, who’d go on to break a slew of records at Memphis. The wide receiver on the other side of the field was Cedric Wilson, who just signed a three-year, $22 million deal with the Miami Dolphins after totaling 602 yards and six scores with Dak Prescott and the Cowboys.
This roster was full of talented players dying for another shot. Anything shy of domination more than likely meant it was time to pursue a new passion in life.
“My mindset was ‘Your back is against the wall,’” Winfree says. “For me, it wasn’t really pressure. It was getting back to what I deserved. I knew I deserved to be D-I, playing against these guys every Saturday. So, I was just taking what belongs to me.”
Winfree relished the reality that this was his own Last Chance U of a season.
Everyone realized this in Coffeyville, he adds, but not everyone actually “lives like that.” They don’t put the work in and their talent evaporates. They’re gone. A never-was. Roughly three miles north of the Oklahoma border, this school is as Nowhere, USA as it gets, but Winfree never viewed himself as above his surroundings. For him, day-to-day life was perfectly fine. His dorm was only 100 yards or so away. He’d cruise to classes on his hoverboard, work out, practice, rip through Lost or another TV show on Netflix back at his room and, in all, Winfree thinks he attended one or two parties tops.
It paid off. Winfree committed to Pitt, the school that kept believing in him, because their coaches viewed him as a logical replacement for Tyler Boyd, the school’s all-time leading receiver who was off to become the heart of the Cincinnati Bengals. Then, Winfree fell in love with Colorado and decided to de-commit. He saw how the Buffaloes threw “the shit out of the ball” to Nelson Spruce the two years prior — 195 catches for 2,251 yards with 16 scores — and envisioned himself fitting right into that role, that pass-happy offense the fall of 2016. For two weeks of camp, he ate corners alive in practice, too. Winfree was penciled in as the starting “X” receiver, and then…
… another setback.
On Aug. 16, in a one-on-one drill, he ran a back-shoulder fade, beat future pro Ahkello Witherspoon, landed awkwardly on one leg and tore his ACL. His season was over. He was forced to be a spectator as Colorado went 10-4 and reached the Pac-12 Championship Game. He rehabbed, returned for the 2017 season, and then…
… more frustration.
Winfree, a No. 1 option before that torn ACL, now could hardly get on the field. Four other receivers had jumped him on the depth chart: seniors Bryce Bobo, Shay Fields, Devin Ross and, the head coach’s son, Jay MacIntyre. The Buffs limped to a 5-7 finish and he was fed mere rations of targets, totaling 325 yards on 21 receptions. Winfree knew he should’ve been on the field, which is why this was actually far more maddening than sitting out with the torn ACL.
He allowed the anger to poison his game.
“That was a point in time that messed me up mentally,” Winfree says. “That was definitely a point where I would complain, ‘Why are they in?’ And it’s crazy because I’d complain and my mind would be so distracted with ‘Why am I not playing?’ that when I got my opportunity a couple times, I dropped the ball. It just bothered me. There was definitely a point where I said, ‘Why is this shit happening to me? They know I’m better than these guys.’”
He describes himself as “adventurous.” If he’s not playing football, there’s a good chance Winfree is in the mountains or at the beach. Hiking during those difficult times at Colorado helped clear his mind. He’d gaze off into the distance and try to manifest his future.
True, his mind also started to wander back to his decision to leave Pitt in the dust. Into 2018 — now his fifth year of college football — his back was against the wall again. More bad news lurked, of course. In the second game of this season, he suffered a high ankle sprain against Nebraska that sidelined him 4 ½ weeks. Upon returning, pain lingered. Here, he re-enacts the feeling, slamming his foot onto the ground. Any time he planted — any time there was any pressure on that foot — he felt it. (“That shit would hurt!”) Yet, Juwann Winfree didn’t really have a choice. If he still harbored any hopes whatsoever of playing in the NFL, he needed to suck it up. He sure didn’t want to take a medical redshirt and hang around for a sixth year of college. This was nearing Tommy Callahan territory.
I’ve gotta get to the NFL, he told himself. This is my last chance.
Winfree received a platelet-rich plasma (PRP) injection and played the rest of the season.
His absence created an opening for Laviska Shenault, who quickly asserted himself as one of the top playmakers in the nation. But with Shenault out against Arizona, on Nov. 2, 2018, Winfree got his one shot to prove himself. He did not disappoint. On that bad ankle, he caught eight balls for 101 yards. Thus, he had provided just enough game footage to warrant the NFL’s attention and an invitation to the NFLPA Game. His agent, Mike McCartney, hooked him up with a foot specialist and Winfree performed well through the all-star practices, capping the week off with a 22-yard touchdown in the game.
Then, the dogged McCartney hustled. He tried his best to get the word out on Winfree to as many teams as he could, to explain why this was a true diamond in the rough.
Winfree worked out for the Giants, Jets and Broncos and the Broncos took him in the sixth round.
It never worked out in Denver. Winfree admits he crashed hard into the rookie wall that 2019 season. A finger injury didn’t help — it stung every time he caught the ball. But the challenge was more mental. All camp he played the “Z” receiver, the flanker spot, but then realized he needed to know all of the positions once the season started. He wasn’t ready. The whole year felt like “catch-up.” His position coach (Zach Azzanni) was a great coach, he says, but also hard on guys. If the ball was thrown to the other side of the field, Azzanni wanted you still sprinting 100 percent and hitting somebody.
“I had to understand what it took to be out there,” Winfree says, “and really embrace it. … It took a toll. Being there every day, I just hit a wall. Like, ‘Geesh, can the season hurry up and get over with so I can take a breath and relax?’”
The following offseason, Covid ripped through the nation and Winfree took it upon himself to be ready. He insists he knew every single route he could possibly run in this Broncos offense by the time 2020 training camp opened up. All of the extra training backfired, however. He tore his groin the first week and never had a chance to show Denver how far he had come. The Broncos were understandably eager to get their new rookies on the field. That previous spring, they took Jerry Jeudy (15th overall), KJ Hamler (46th) and Tyrie Cleveland (254th). Winfree was old news.
“Everything happens for a reason,” Winfree says. “I learned what I had to learn in Denver. How to be a pro. That’s really it. What’s need. What it takes. Then I get to Green Bay and I learn how to be a winner. More than a pro. Winning.”
He’s been with the Packers since October 2020.
As Valdes-Scantling detailed a year ago to Go Long, it takes multiple years to get on the same page as Aaron Rodgers. There’s the Packers’ playbook. Then, there’s Rodgers’ playbook. The two fuse together on gameday with the quarterback granted final say at the line of scrimmage. Winfree hasn’t played much. But he views the fact that he’s been around for two-plus seasons as his edge. It’s taken a while, but he believes he can keep up with the quarterback play to play in real time.
“It gets tricky playing with 12,” Winfree says. “You start to double-think yourself and second-guess yourself. ‘Does he want this? Does he want that?’ … It’ll be hand signals. Or he’ll say it. He’ll do it with people who he knows know it or who he was in there with. So, he’ll do it with Davante. But you’re not in. So, you’re like, ‘What did he just give Davante?’ That’s where you learn it. Like, ‘Oh shit. He just gave him that?’ And then he’ll come back and Davante will tell you what it was. And that’s you learning. That’s you catching on. You won’t know until you’re out there with him.”
There’s a good chance most folks have written Winfree off, especially with new faces in town.
But if we’ve learned anything from wide receivers in Green Bay, it’s that it takes time. Rookies almost never make much of an impact playing with Rodgers. Assimilation is a multi-year process. Winfree maintains that he has not lost his confidence. He’s sure he is still that guy who balled out at JUCO, delivered vs. Arizona and has quietly been building behind the scenes in Green Bay — that, in 2022, he can see the same soft spots in the defense as his QB.
“I know what I can do,” Winfree says. “Things haven’t gone my way. There’s nobody to blame for it. That’s just how life goes. Not everything is going to go your way. But I know what I can bring to the table. I’m a worker. I’m somebody who’s a playmaker. I’m going to help the team win any way I can. I’m going to do whatever the coach asks, whatever Aaron Rodgers needs. And I’m talented so I’m going to help this team win any way I can.
“Things get worse before they get better. I get cut. I know it’s going to get better. I’m here, on the other side of it. The spot is not mine. I still have to earn everything.”
Nobody can possibly expect anyone — let alone Winfree — to duplicate Davante Adams’ production. Adams has the fourth-most yards, second-most receptions and second-most receiving touchdowns in the Packers’ 102-year history. Not bad. This fall, expect the Packers to try to win games in a new way, something we discussed on this podcast episode. GM Brian Gutekunst has been loading up on defense. With first-rounders Quay Walker and Devonte Wyatt joining Kenny Clark and De’Vondre Campbell, suddenly the middle of Green Bay’s defense is as strong as its been in years. It’ll be on Rodgers to stick with the run, too. Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon could form one of the league’s best 1-2 punches.
Yet, it’s a passing league, and Rodgers is an MVP quarterback.
The Packers will undoubtedly need one or two receivers from this mystery pack to emerge.
Winfree fully expects himself to make the same big plays Adams did. Seriously.
He is not shy in citing the similarities in their games: “The quickness in and out of his breaks, the big-time catches, the mindset of being in attack mode and winning on your routes.” With that, Winfree pumps his brakes. He backtracks… just a smidge… to assure they are two different players. Obviously, Adams is one of the best receivers in football. But Winfree did have a front-row seat to study him every day. That accounts for something in his mind. (“I’m chasing greatness,” he adds.) And he knows how hard it is for a completely new wide receiver to join this offense. He tells people all the time that it’s just different.
There’s complex. Then, there’s this.
“It’s hard,” he adds. “Especially as a rookie coming in, it’s gotta be tough.”
Rodgers’ presence at voluntary OTAs opening in four days sure would help. He skipped a year ago, but that was when he had Adams. That was when that duo’s telepathic connection fueled the passing game. It’s a new world at wide receiver for the Packers. Everything will be completely up for grabs and that’s how Winfree wants it. It’s been eight years since nearly every college program in the nation wanted him. This whole football life hasn’t gone as planned but, finally, Winfree sees nothing but good times ahead.
He fully expects his experience with the QB to be his advantage.
“One-hundred percent. That definitely could,” says Winfree, quickly correcting himself, “will be my edge. Seeing how he connected with 17, I know what he wants. It’s about efficiency. Not doing too much. With him, all he needs is a little bit of space and he’s putting it right there. So, I know that. All I need to do is be on top of a DB. I need to repeatedly show him I can do it and he’ll deliver every time.”
The playoff loss to San Francisco at Lambeau Field stung. In each of the last two winters, Winfree recalls everybody in the locker room thinking “We’re going to the Super Bowl.” That’s how he talked to family, to friends because there was no doubt in his mind. He had them prepping for tickets to the big game in L.A. with Green Bay locked into the No. 1 seed.
There’s a quiet, yet consistent point-blank tone to his voice.
One thought was on his mind then —“We’re going” — and it has not changed.
“So,” Winfree adds, “that’s not going to change next year.”