When Patrick Peterson signed with the Minnesota Vikings, it was reasonable to assume that he was Mike Zimmer’s new shutdown corner.
As an eight-time Pro-Bowler and three-time All-Pro selection, it wouldn’t be surprising if Zimmer lit a cigar, put his feet up on his desk and thought that he had his new version of Xavier Rhodes. But Zimmer and the front office may not realize that the best candidate to replace Rhodes was already on their roster.
To understand why Dantzler is a better candidate to fill that role, you have to look at what Rhodes accomplished in 2017.
He was one of the bright spots on a dominant defense that had had a disappointing season the year before. Rhodes ranked first in the NFL in passer rating allowed (47.0) and 26th in yards per coverage snap (0.94) which cleared the way for a breakout season.
In 2017 he shut down some of the best receivers in the league, and “Rhodes Closed” became a common phrase among Viking fans. Although his yards per coverage snap (1.02) and passer rating allowed (73.2) went up, Rhodes claimed All-Pro honors for the first time in his career and was a key component of a 13-3 Vikings team.
Peterson performed on a similar level to Rhodes that season. He ranked fifth in the NFL in yards per coverage snap (0.66) in 2017 and fourth (0.63) in 2018. But those numbers began to decline when Peterson was suspended for six games for violating the NFL’s performance-enhancing drugs policy at the start of the 2019 season. Last year he slipped to 43rd among qualifying corners in yards per coverage snap (1.05).
Maybe Peterson lost a step. But he believes that Zimmer could revive his career. In that best-case scenario, he could be an effective corner but more in the mold of Terence Newman, who Zimmer helped extend his career into his late 30s.
While there’s more upside for Peterson, the safer bet is for Dantzler to take a leap forward. He had an inconsistent rookie season but began to show potential once returning from a concussion in Week 11. Over the final seven games, Dantzler ranked fourth in the NFL with a 41.9 passer rating allowed. While his 1.09 yards per coverage snap ranked 60th among qualifiers, that number was on par with Rhodes’ 2013 rookie season (1.03 yards per coverage snap).
Selecting the final seven games is an arbitrary point, but it might have something to do with the circumstances surrounding the 2020 season. Dantzler didn’t have an offseason program or preseason games to prepare for the regular season. Once it began, Dantzler had to face Aaron Rodgers in the first game he ever played and suffered a rib injury that kept him out for two games. A Week 7 concussion compounded the issue, keeping him off the field for three more weeks.
If Dantzler can stay healthy, he shares a lot of similar traits to Rhodes. Although Dantzler’s speed was a concern during the pre-draft process, he showed he could keep up with top receivers last year. And while Dantzler is a little skinnier (185 pounds) than Rhodes (218), they both are over six feet tall. Plus, Dantzler’s length gives him a better opportunity to get physical with opposing receivers.
He will also have a better supporting cast than the one Rhodes had during his rookie season. In 2013, Rhodes joined a cornerback room that included Chris Cook, Josh Robinson and Marcus Sherels.
By having Peterson start across from Dantzler, he should find himself in more favorable matchups. This should increase his confidence and prepare him to take over that role. This could happen either a couple of years down the road or if Peterson’s game falls off now that he’s on the wrong side of 30.
With Jeff Gladney, Mackensie Alexander and Xavier Woods — who played slot cornerback with the Dallas Cowboys — also in the fold, Dantzler has the support system needed to take a big step forward. If that happens, the Vikings defense could be closer to a top unit than we think. That could pave the way for a quick turnaround and a return to the playoffs in 2021.