The San Francisco 49ers are one of the few franchises in the league where there is generally more excitement surrounding day three picks compared to their counterparts taken earlier in the draft. Which is understandable considering the 49ers hit rate in the later rounds.
The player getting the most buzz as the 49ers next potential late round gem in this year's class is linebacker Dee Winters, who was selected in the 6th round with the 216th overall pick.
To gain some better insight on Winters and what can be expected from him as he makes this transition to the NFL, I spoke with TCU’s defensive coordinator and linebackers Coach Joe Gillespie.
Coach Gillespie shared some fantastic insight into why Winters is set up for success with the 49ers, also touching on the kind of leadership and intangibles he brought to the TCU program during his time there.
I started out our conversation by asking Coach Gillespie about anything that stood out from his first impressions of Winters upon taking over his current role at TCU:
“Day one on the job, I had just gotten the job and then I came to TCU. I went to the first morning workout and when I walked in there were several guys there who I recruited when I was at the University of Tulsa.
So I was familiar with some, a lot I was not, but I knew who Dee Winters was. He was from just outside of Brenham Texas and all of my roots are in Texas. So I already knew who he was when I was at Tulsa, I recruited him, so when he got here I knew exactly who he was and I got to speak in front of the team and do all that business.”
Coach Gillespie then shared how a one-on-one encounter with Winters immediately set the tone for their relationship during his time coaching him at TCU:
“Soon after we all kind of broke the session, he came up to me and introduced himself. We talked for a minute and I finally said “Dee who is the alpha in the room?”. He said “You’re talking to him” and I said I don’t doubt that a bit, and thats kind of what I expected. And I’m going to tell you honestly, he hasn’t let me down since. When you go through trying times like that, you’re going to find out real quick who the alphas are, whether thats for you or against you, and fortunately he was for.
You could tell real quick this guy was going to control the texture of the room. I’m forever grateful for it, because we wouldn’t have done the things that we did if it wasn’t for his, not just style of play, but his leadership, his character, his work ethic. I mean you just take all of them and start combining them, the impact he had on this team, you can’t put a price on it.”
The new relationship between coach Gillespie and Winters also meant that the standout linebacker was going to have to learn an entirely new defensive scheme. I asked coach Gillespie about how Winters fit into his new scheme and what his role was for the Horned Frogs defense:
“He had to go through the growing pains of learning a whole new defense, learning a whole different scheme, learning new verbiage, from something that he had been coached up in for a few years. And was probably about to experience some similar success on a personal level. Then all of a sudden, there is an entirely new scheme and all that stuff coming in. So I think that says a lot about him on what type of student of the game he is, and what type of IQ that he has.
I also think that for us he was a young man that, we knew what type of skill this dude had, but we were about to ask a lot of things out of him. He was always a field side linebacker, he was going to play out in space, he was going to be put in some precarious positions, we were going to ask him to do a lot of things. But we were also going to ask him to play in the box and fit like a snot slobbering linebacker and do some of those things as well.
Then we could actually walk him up on the line, get the resemblance of a four man front. His versatility and his ability to show off a lot of different strengths of his game was going to be important to us. As the season progressed he became more comfortable with it and he had to go through it like anybody when you come in and you have a a major overhaul and change of schemes, and coaches, and dynamics of everything, there is a bit of a learning curve.
Fortunately we were able to do it with some wins and some success. It was quite obvious he was a hell of a football player, and it was just a matter of time before he started showing off, once he got comfortable he was able to show off all of his skillsets and we were able to do a lot of stuff with him. Tremendous student of the game, the second half of the season was, take the Michigan game, it was everything he kept doing and he just kept progressing. That’s just the skillset the young man has, it’s very impressive.”
One area of collegiate football that vastly differs between the pro game is the amount of space that linebackers are tasked with covering. Which is typically the result of the hash marks being much wider than they are in the NFL.
I asked Coach Gillespie about how a player like Winters being responsible for covering so much space in college sets him up for speed he’s going to have to deal with at the next level:
“There is absolutely a great comparison, especially for his position because you can do some things with some guys at the collegiate level, where you start hiding guys on the boundary and stuff like that, don’t put them in precarious positions. In the league you can’t do that. To take a guy like Dee, typically for his position in our scheme we like to take a guy that comes from safety and let him go through the maturation process and move him forward.
For him it was a one year deal, I was hopeful that I’d get him for two, but it was a one year deal, and he had not played the high position, so now to put you in this space, and not only put you in this space, but I think the bigger deal is taking you from all that space and then putting you in the box. When you start talking about confining yourself into those positions, and be able to be successful there and have the success he had space.
Now all of a sudden thats where I think guys in the league, and it had to be a really good fit for him, but there’s people in the league that sit there and look at that stuff, and say not only is he productive in this but he’s also productive in that. I think that’s where it begins to be a bit more noticeable, it’s the kind of the style of our defense honestly, we are going to try to ask our guys to do a lot of different things, and if that showcases your talent that showcases your talent, and if doesn’t then it’ll show it in a heartbeat too. Fortunately for him it was something that I think fed into his skillset.”
I thought the point Coach Gillespie made about typically looking for players who had experience playing safety to slot into the position Winters played at TCU was very intriguing.
Given the 49ers propensity to take a similar approach by targeting linebackers with a background playing in the secondary, I asked Coach Gillespie, what allows Winters to thrive in a 49ers linebacking corps? This is a group that is so dependent on its players being able to have that kind of versatility he showed at TCU.
“You gotta go back to where he came from, I mean this guy never came off the field when he was in high school. He was a running back, wildcat, safety, linebacker, punt returner, kick returner, he was on kickoff, he did it all so it’s not like this is foreign to him. So I think when you start coupling all the years he’s played ball, and he’s played it at a very high level, he fits right in.
Coach Gillespie then went on to say that he thought that San Francisco was the best possible landing spot for Winters in the NFL:
“For him to go to the 49ers, I thought that was the perfect marriage. Immediately I was like there’s no better place you could go than where you’re going right now. I think it’s going to be a tremendous marriage for him, and an excellent opportunity to learn in that defense. I also think it’s something where he’s going to be able to tap into what his skillsets are, and they are going to be able to as well, and it’s going to be fun to watch.”
I followed up by asking Coach Gillespie why he felt it was such a good match. Was it the scheme, the players who were already there, or perhaps the chance to work with a coach as respected as Johnny Holland?
“I think it’s the combination of everything. Obviously scheme has something to do with it, it has to. Because there are going to be certain schemes that guys fit into and certain schemes that they don’t. It’s just like the scheme we run here at TCU, I mean there are a lot of good football players out there but I don’t recruit them all.
So I think it’s kind of the same dynamic. You also start talking about that room, and whats in that room, and who’s coaching that room, and what type of success they’ve had. Man, what a blessed opportunity that young man has and I think he belongs in it.”
While the speed Winters possesses gets talked about for good reason, I asked Coach Gillespie if there was an underrated trait, he had that maybe has flown under the radar due to being overshadowed by his elite explosiveness.
Coach Gillespie immediately pointed to the mental acuity Winters possesses and how his exceptional football IQ not only made him better, but his teammates as well.
“Obviously you can see some sparks where his play goes to a different level. So that’s the thing that I’m excited to watch, it’s not like this guy has hit his ceiling. Honestly that was one of my big things from a selfish standpoint, I wanted to help him try and find a ceiling and I don’t think he is even scratching at the surface. This young man has got so much talent, but when he has a little bit more knowledge, and he has a little bit more comfort in not just what he is doing, but what is everybody else doing around him.
And the anticipation, you can go from personnel to formation to situation and all that stuff, you can start pulling it back and say they are about to do two or three things. And I think that’s where he grew the most as a football player, not just knowing what you do and performing at your level, but knowing what those guys are doing in front of you, beside you, behind you.
And then you have to have the alerts of studying our opponents, and so it’s all just the different sections of it, so I’m excited to watch what he does and see how he rolls, because he doesn’t have a physics test or an economics test to worry about, his test is to prepare himself to be the very best he can be from the moment he wakes up until the moment his head hits the pillow.
He is a tremendous student of the game, always came in extremely prepared and ready to work, and he was a guy who could take it from the class and put it on the grass. I think that’s important as there are guys who are high rep guys and they gotta be hands on guys, and there are guys who are able to take what you are talking about in the classroom and put it on the grass immediately. For us and what he was able to do at TCU, he was a guy that could sit there and put it out on the grass very consistently and then that helped everybody else come along, because then he became a coach out on the field.”
I then asked Coach Gillespie if there was a particular role or position with the 49ers that he believed would give Winters the best chance to hit his ceiling:
“I’m trying to put myself in their scheme a little bit too, I can’t help but think about that. I’ll be ignorant to it, I know that they’ve already got ideas. Whether that’s a third down guy, whether thats a rush edge guy, whether thats a bastardized safety, spin down linebacker in certain situations. I think that’s what makes him marketable, is that there are a lot of different roles you can see him in.
With something like this you have to go into is saying specials are going to be my ticket, and this is what I’m going to do. But I also need to find myself in packages, and I think for the immediate success, it’s going to be get yourself in packages and then go kick ass in specials. Because that’s what a great linebacker does, a guy that has speed, a guy that knows field, knows space, knows all those things. Can get down the field, can make big plays, can bring a punch and can do it at 230, 233 (pounds) or whatever he is at right now.
Then your intelligence and your athleticism, and your desire and want to, and heart, all those things, that’s going to get you in on those packages. Then you go make plays in those packages, then you’re going to find yourself on the field in a lot of different areas. I think just because of the style of play, and the scheme and who they are, I have never gotten to coach with them, I haven’t gotten the chance to be in those discussions. I’m an outsider looking in and watching. Just as an outsider looking in and watching that’s why I say this is the perfect spot for Dee Winters, and I also think it’s a big get for them as well.
I was genuinely interested to hear what area of Winters’ game that Coach Gillespie thought he had the most room to improve on as he enters the NFL. Coach Gillespie mentioned block destruction, something that was also a point of emphasis with a linebacker he coached that was drafted in the first round in the 2021 NFL draft:
“Yeah absolutely, we can all grow from the X’s and O’s knowledge and just the alertness and what other teams are doing and catching up on those things. If you start talking about what technique thing that he can do, the block destruction is something that in our scheme I wanted to work with more on.
I felt like if there was something we could add to his game, this would be the area that I would pinpoint first. Whether thats from the outside in or inside out, because those are two different beasts. And I don’t think everyone treats it that way, it becomes one element. In our minds it’s a couple different elements, so for us in the scheme that we were running, that would have been the area I would have worked on the most.
It’s the same area I had to work with on Zaven Collins. He was big, he was a kid that could run, he was extremely intelligent. You’re talking about a guy who is 6’4 255 pounds, and his block destruction was the thing I wanted to work with him on the most.”
While the block destruction is an area of improvement, one area Winters enters the league in ready to excel at is utilizing his elite explosiveness. Winters ran a 4.49 second 40-yard dash, which put him at the 94th percentile at his position.
That number reflects the kind of burst that was evident watching him on game day. But what truly stands out is the way that Coach Gillespie talked about how Winters consistently brought that same level of intensity to practice every day.
While we discussed their GPS tracking data, I asked Coach Gillespie if there was anything about those numbers that stood out with Winters. The main theme in his answer? Consistency. Winters was a player who was regularly giving maximum effort while on the practice field, something that was sure to endear him to his new head coach in San Francisco:
“We do it on all of our kids and we keep track of it daily. We meet as a staff about it. Dee was one of those, from a practice standpoint was a consistent 20-21 mile per hour guy, and that’s from a practice standpoint not even going out and playing in game form. He may not even be running down on special teams that day, so we also took that into consideration.
This was a guy that when we went into practice he was very consistent in hitting some targets, he was very consistent in hitting max speed, and not just max speed but max speed yardage. He was also a guy I had to keep an eye on as well as the week would progress, on working to tempo some of that max speed yardage down, because I need you as fresh as you can be come Saturday.
You start talking about Tuesday, they’re still probably feeling a bit of residual from game time depending on the type of game we played. Then Wednesday would be a max speed type of day. Thursday’s for us, I really wanted to tempo them down big time. On Friday’s we had a belief that these guys are built differently, we called it fast Friday and we wanted you to go out there and tap into those speeds.
That’s what your body wants you to do, and thats what you’re trained to do, you’re a hot rod that’s what you are. We gave you time to sit there and cool off, and now for you to race at your best you’re going to have to heat up your engine a bit. He was very consistent with what he did, I know we always would sit there and said that one of our biggest identities from a defensive standpoint is speed so let’s play with it, and he would do that.”
After being fortunate enough to have Coach Gillespie share his insight, it became even more clear why Winters was such a perfect match for the 49ers and the culture that has been cultivated by the current regime.
Beyond just the athletic ability and a physical profile that compares favorably to one of their incumbent starters at the linebacker position, Winters also checked a lot of the boxes that this team covets.
A player who does not slack off during practice, and is constantly working on his mind and body to be the best version of himself that he can be on the football field. When we talk about what kind of players this front office covets, the words high football character get used a lot for good reason.
If you were to open up a dictionary and look up the definition of high football character, it would simply say “Dee Winters”.