The Vikings had a record 26 draft picks over the past two years, and 24 of them remain on the Vikings roster. And while the focus now for fans is on the upcoming draft, current Vikings players, including these recent draft picks, return to practice this week. Several players from the last two drafts could see greater contributions to the team this season, and the coaching assessment of their abilities could influence how the Vikings pursue draft picks at the end of the month. In the first of a series of profiles of these players, I’ll take a closer look at Vikings cornerback Cameron Dantzler.
Impressive Rookie Season...
In my initial breakdown of Dantzler following the draft, which included all his scouting reports, PFF college grades, game film, etc., the main concern about him was his slight build- 6’2” but just 188 pounds at at the Combine. As it turned out, Dantzler drank a lot of water before his weigh-in to alleviate some of the weight concerns, but that in turn caused him to run a poor 40- just 4.64”. He later ran a 4.37” 40 at his pro day, but all that just created uncertainty about him.
And so despite excellent tape, including holding Ja’Marr Chase to just 13 yards receiving- his worst game that season- Dantzler fell to the 3rd round where the Vikings selected him.
But from the get-go, Dantzler was earning high marks in practice and training camp. At one point during training camp Adam Thielen, who’d been matched up with Dantzler many times, came to then head coach Mike Zimmer and said, “that #27 is going to be good,” referring to Dantzler’s number. Dantzler would go on to earn a starting position in the Vikings revamped secondary following the losses of Xavier Rhodes and Trae Waynes.
Dantzler had struggles the first part of his rookie season, and missed a total of five games- two early on with a rib injury, two mid-season due to a concussion, and the last game of the season with a hamstring. But the last half of the season, Dantzler finished as the highest graded cornerback in the league, according to PFF:
For the season as a whole, Dantzler finished as the 2nd highest graded cornerback in his draft class among those with at least 20% of total snaps played:
He was also named to the All-Rookie team.
... Leads to a Seat on the Bench
But that impressive rookie performance earned Dantzler nothing more than a spot on the bench the following season, as Mike Zimmer brought in veteran Bashaud Breeland to replace him, and gave him the starting job without competition. Breeland had graded ten spots lower than Dantzler for the 2020 season, so Zimmer’s decision to give him the starting job over Dantzler from the get-go after he was acquired in June was a head-scratcher. Dantzler apparently took exception to the decision, earning him a spot in Zimmer’s doghouse through training camp. Dantzler was clearly miffed, with Zimmer and co-DC Andre Patterson saying he needed to practice better and play special teams when asked about him during training camp.
The decision to start Breeland over Dantzler was even more peculiar as Dantzler’s claim to fame in college was his being able to hold star WR Ja’Marr Chase to just 13 yards receiving when they matched up in college, his worst game that season. The Vikings would face Ja’Marr Chase and the Bengals in the first game of the season. The Vikings lost that game in overtime, with Breeland giving up 5 receptions on 8 targets for 107 yards, 2 TDs, and a defensive pass interference penalty- most of that facing Ja’Marr Chase.
Breeland was the worst graded cornerback in the league after week one, according to PFF- a position he held for most of his tenure with the Vikings, which ended abruptly with his release on December 18th, 2021 after a fight in practice that had to be broken up by Rick Spielman. For the season, Breeland was the 5th worst graded cornerback in the league.
Be that as it may, Dantzler managed to start 7 games last season for the Vikings and played over half (685/1207) of the defensive snaps, having rotated in during other games. Dantzler finished the season as the Vikings’ highest graded cornerback, and ranked 17th among 116 cornerbacks across the league, according to PFF.
New Coaches, New Season, New Number
The coaching changes are probably as welcome from Dantzler as anybody, given the issues he had with Zimmer last year. But not everyone is new for Dantzler. Daronte Jones returns as Dantzler’s DB coach after coaching him his rookie season with the Vikings as well.
Dantzler also seemed to announce that he would go back to his old college number - 3 - this year, although that isn’t official, and Jordan Berry would have to agree to that as well.
But where does Dantzler go from here?
He’s currently the Vikings starting outside cornerback, opposite Patrick Peterson. But the Vikings are also thin at the cornerback position, and are widely expected to draft a cornerback- perhaps with their first-round pick. If that were the case, that pick would likely compete for a starting job at some point, and whether Peterson or Dantzler is the odd man out remains to be seen. Most likely is that a first-round rookie CB may play out this season as the #3 outside cornerback, working in rotation and likely getting significant reps as he proves himself. Ultimately, a first-round pick this year would replace Patrick Peterson as a starter next season.
Dantzler seems a good fit for the Vikings new defensive scheme under Ed Donatell, himself a former DB coach. Donatell runs the Vic Fangio defensive scheme, having worked under him for many years, which runs a lot of man, Cover-4 and Cover-6 coverage schemes. Dantzler has been good in both press-man and zone coverage, so he has the versatility to operate in Donatell’s scheme well. Additionally, despite his thin frame, Dantzler has proven to be excellent in run support- something Donatell also likes to see in his CBs.
Dantzler finished the 2021 season with a 73.8 overall PFF grade, including 90.9 in run defense, 72.1 tackling, and 67.6 in coverage. He allowed completions on just 52.4% of his targets, and had a passer rating when targeted of just 70.3 with only one penalty.
Dantzler has proven consistent at this level since the latter part of his rookie year, so it wouldn’t be surprising for him to continue at this level of performance, and even improve on it with more consistent playing time and reps, and as he has gained more experience.
Having a top performing outside cornerback on one side of the field would go a long way in improving the Vikings pass defense, particularly if the pass rush improves with Danielle Hunter and Za’Darius Smith as edge rushers. Strong support from the coaching staff will only improve Dantzler’s confidence and swagger as well - important qualities in top cornerbacks. Dantzler has a total of 3 interceptions and 8 pass break-ups over what amounts to just over a year’s worth of snaps. One of the focuses of Ed Donatell’s defense is to generate take-aways, so Dantzler may have the opportunity to improve on those numbers this season.
Overall, Dantzler could see his first full-year of work as a starter this season, provided he stays healthy. His past performance, when he’s been on the field, has been better than any of the other Vikings cornerbacks since Xavier Rhodes’ 2017 season. Maintaining that performance over 17+ games would be a significant improvement for the Vikings, and if he’s able to improve on his own performance in previous years, so much the better.
How will Cameron Dantzler perform this season for the Vikings?
This poll is closed
Top 20% of starting CBs
Top half of starting CBs
Bottom half of starting CBs
Won’t be a starter