2020 rookie cornerbacks Cameron Dantzler and Jeff Gladney ended their seasons leaving us feeling, um, whelmed? The duo certainly saw their fair share of growing pains, but they also showed a few flashes of promise. So what can we realistically expect from them as they start their sophomore campaigns?
Gladney, the 2020 first-round pick out of TCU, started 15 games last year. He allowed the third-most receptions (68) and was fourth-most in targets (95) according to Pro Football Focus (PFF). He also allowed a 70.5% completion percentage and a 118.1 QB rating. Yikes. It is pretty safe to say opposing quarterbacks were not afraid to go after ol’ Jeff. But he was drafted in the first round for a reason. As early as Week 9, after a win against the Detroit Lions, Zimmer touted Gladney, saying, “Jeff continues to get better every week as far as understanding things.”
The talent is there if he can learn to use it.
Dantzler, the third-round pick from Mississippi St., played in only 11 games last season but made a strong impact. According to PFF, he had two games with over a 90.0 coverage grade, but he also gave up some of the biggest plays of the season. He was a frustratingly different player week to week. Dantzler came up with huge interceptions at times, like his crucial pick against the Jacksonville Jaguars that changed the momentum of the game. But he also allowed that crushing D.K. Metcalf catch on fourth down, with just minutes remaining in the game. The Seattle Seahawks, as we all know, went on to win.
So let’s fire up the crystal ball and take a look into the future. To see what might be in store, let’s turn back to the most recent highly selected corner and his progress from Year 1 to Year 2.
Mike Hughes, the first-round pick in 2018, improved significantly. His allowed-completion percentage dropped six points, and his allowed passer rating went down 13 points. His missed-tackle percentage went down a solid four points, which we can all assume left corner guru Mike Zimmer grinning. And while his seasons have been marred by injury, he showed steady improvement. Stats aside, it was apparent watching him that things were beginning to click.
This doesn’t guarantee the same development in Gladney and Dantzler, but it can offer some hope about what they could accomplish with this coaching staff. Other cornerbacks such as Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander might not have become superstars either, but certainly they were capable starters. The recent addition of veteran Patrick Peterson can also only help. His leadership and experience can help these fresh corners build up their confidence and skills and even take some pressure off the heavily targeted youngsters.
However, the Vikings do need more help from the secondary in 2021. Harrison Smith can only cover up so many mistakes. Cornerbacks are no longer asked simply to cover; they need to be well-rounded and reliable tacklers as well. Dantzler missed 13% of his tackles, and Gladney missed a whopping 20% in the 2020 campaign. And while reinforcements coming back to the defensive line should help the defensive backs, the duo can no longer hide behind their rookie status. It’s time to show out. But from what we saw from Gladney and Dantzler last year, there is reason to hope they can become good, if not great, defensive players.
We do only have one year to go off, but this is not some Laquon Treadwell scenario where after a year, you just bury your face into your hands, sob, and then throw darts at a picture of Rick Spielman. Both are already tough, physical corners, which is a keystone in a Zimmer secondary. Dantzler and Gladney showed potential that can hopefully be brought out even more by coaching and experience.
Based on past player performance, and Gladney and Dantzler’s natural talent, it is easy to be excited about the pair’s future. But a lot of questions remain. Running a proper camp this season should shed a little more light on where their progress stands. Until then, let’s do what we all do so well — crank those expectations sky high and hope for the best.