With Minnesota Vikings veteran cornerback Patrick Peterson set to miss the next three games because of a hamstring injury, second-year corner Cameron Dantzler will return to the starting lineup for the first time since Christmas Day. Dantzler was Pro Football Focus’ highest-graded rookie cornerback last year, and it appeared that the future was bright for Minnesota’s third -round pick out of Mississippi State.
By the time preseason rolled around, though, it was evident that Dantzler had fallen out of favor with the coaching staff. He was placed below Kris Boyd on the depth chart and was playing in the second half of preseason games. When asked about the decision to put Boyd above Dantzler, head coach Mike Zimmer responded by simply saying, “Boyd’s been doing better.”
Dantzler has only played in three games so far this season. He’s done pretty well when he’s seen the field, receiving a 67.9 grade from PFF on 113 snaps. But questions about his maturity and work ethic have kept him from returning to the starting lineup until now. Some believe that his impressive rookie season may have made Dantzler too comfortable heading into the offseason. But with Peterson’s injury and the decision to start Dantzler, not Boyd, it appears that the coaching staff has put the ball in Dantzler’s court.
This wouldn’t be the first time a cornerback has had to work his way into Zimmer’s good graces and the starting lineup. Trae Waynes, the 2015 first-round pick, had to wait a full season before becoming a regular starter. Waynes wasn’t on the bench because of attitude issues. Zimmer has never been one to rush rookies into the starting lineup. Waynes probably wasn’t expecting solely to be a special teams player when he came out of college, but he was able to hone his tackling skills on punt coverage — a concern scouts had going into the draft.
In 2016, Waynes began rotating into the defensive lineup but couldn’t seize the job from 38-year-old Terence Newman until the second half of the year. Once he entered the starting lineup, though, Waynes became an underrated CB2. He was part of the No. 1-ranked defense in 2017, contributing to a stout run defense. He posted tackling grades of 86.5 and 84.4 in 2016 and 2018, respectively. He must have made an impression on the Cincinnati Bengals when he hit free agency following the 2019 season, signing a three-year, $42 million deal. We can discuss that contract some other time.
Mackensie Alexander, a 2016 second-round pick, faced a situation even more similar to what Dantzler is going through right now. Unlike Waynes, Alexander underwent a position change as a rookie. After playing outside corner at Clemson, Minnesota moved Alexander inside to play nickelback. He only played 67 defensive snaps in his first year, and he admittedly wasn’t a fan of his new position.
However, in 2017 Alexander began to embrace his role in the NFL. He started to rotate into the lineup with Newman and became more coachable. Hard-headed by nature, Alexander’s ability to adapt his game to Zimmer’s scheme saw him grade out at 78.1 in 2018 and 65.7 in 2019. After a one-year stint with Cincinnati last year, Alexander re-signed with the Vikings last March. Why did he return after a sour start to his NFL career?
“I missed it, of course,” Alexander said after signing. “[It’s] why I’m back. You want to be coached like that. Somebody that’s going to stay on you. Being back is going to be fun.”
That Alexander chose to return to Minnesota to reunite with Zimmer is telling. Despite not hearing what he wanted to hear early in his career, Alexander grew to appreciate Zimmer’s tough love. Dantzler is going through that right now as well. Even if it got Dantzler into Zimmer’s doghouse, though, Waynes and Alexander are a reminder that Zimmer is willing to let players work themselves out of it. Even though Zimmer is hard on his players, especially cornerbacks, he wants what the best from them.
Perhaps being out of the starting lineup woke Dantzler up. This week, Zimmer said of him, “I think he’s a bit more focused on what he’s trying to do out there.” Defensive coordinator Andre Patterson echoed the same message Wednesday. “It’s never been a talent issue with him. It’s about being locked in and going out there and executing your job and doing what you’re supposed to do, and he’s done that the last couple of weeks.”
No team wants to experience injuries. Peterson’s on-field leadership can’t be quantified. But in his 11th season, his physical ability is nowhere near what Dantzler’s is at age 23. Dantzler can be part of the team’s present and future from this point forward. Whether he is or not, and how far his career takes off, appears to be up to him.