There was a lot of optimism surrounding Cameron Dantzler this year. He was coming off a rookie season that had its ups and downs but finished strong to create excitement heading into his second year.
Six weeks into the season, something changed. Dantzler was inactive for the season opener in Cincinnati and has played behind Bashaud Breeland. Even as Breeland struggled, Mike Zimmer refused to play Dantzler, and the young corner voiced his displeasure on social media.
But with Patrick Peterson’s hamstring injury comes a great opportunity. If Dantzler can play well in Peterson’s absence, he can regain the trust of the coaching staff and earn a long-term role. To do that, he needs to get back to what he once was.
Dantzler’s stock was high toward the end of last season, in large part due to his play down the stretch. According to Pro Football Focus, he graded fourth among qualifying corners over his final six games of last year. In addition to his high grade, Dantzler allowed the second-lowest passer rating when targeted (41.9) and 1.06 yards per coverage snap.
Those numbers look like someone who was turning the corner (no pun intended), but they should be taken with a grain of salt. Dantzler’s strong performances helped boost his grade, which overshadowed his poor performances last year.
Dantzler’s best games came against the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Chicago Bears. While he was able to deny DJ Chark the ball repeatedly, he did so with journeyman quarterback Mike Glennon behind center. His yards per coverage snap look great against the Bears, but he also allowed 80% of his targets to be caught. This was against Mitchell Trubisky, who is now backing up Josh Allen in Buffalo.
These games also offer a small sample size where Dantzler was playing behind Jeff Gladney, Chris Jones, and Kris Boyd. Although he played season-high snaps against Jacksonville, he was limited. In other games, Teddy Bridgewater, Tom Brady, and Drew Brees torched him.
It’s hard to fault a rookie for being picked apart by an established starting quarterback and two future Hall of Famers, but Dantzler parlayed his strong finish into a rough offseason. An injury limited Dantzler’s participation in minicamp, and when he got to training camp he found himself behind Boyd on the depth chart.
Dantzler’s play in preseason games did nothing to get him out of the doghouse. One of his glaring weaknesses is speed, and he wasn’t able to keep up with KJ Hamler, who scored an 80-yard touchdown in the first preseason game.
While Dantzler found himself buried on the depth chart, he has played well when given the opportunity. He has just 68 snaps in three games this season but has limited quarterbacks to a 58.2 passer rating when targeted. Dantzler has done it against solid competition, recording a pass breakup in the Vikings’ loss to the Arizona Cardinals.
But Dantzler also showed that things can go wrong. In last Sunday’s game against the Panthers, he allowed a long completion to Ian Thomas on a fourth down that would have effectively ended the game.
With another blown coverage, Mike Zimmer is probably pulling his hair out at the thought of playing Dantzler, but he has no choice. Harrison Hand has been on and off the COVID list, and Boyd appears to be a special teams player at this point in his career. Outside of signing a free agent or making a trade, Dantzler is the best option they have.
That’s the good news for Dantzler, who will finally get to see the field. The bad news is that he won’t get the friendly schedule he saw last season.
Assuming Patrick Peterson misses the minimum three games on injured reserve, Dantzler will go up against Dak Prescott, Lamar Jackson, and Justin Herbert coming out of the bye. And if Peterson isn’t ready by Week 11, Dantzler will be re-acquainted with Aaron Rodgers, who picked on him throughout a Week 1 victory over the Vikings last year.
But this is the kind of opportunity that Dantzler has been waiting for. If he can show some of the potential that he flashed during the end of last season, he could wind up being a key part of the Vikings’ defense for years to come. If he doesn’t, they could be looking for a new starting corner next offseason.