For a player entering his third year in the NFL, Cameron Dantzler’s time with the Minnesota Vikings can be described as equal parts promising and puzzling. Like most rookies in their inaugural season, he was inconsistent on a weekly basis. However, Dantzler showed flashes of why the Vikings drafted him with the 89th pick in 2020.
Unfortunately, Dantzler’s rookie growing pains put him squarely in Mike Zimmer’s doghouse, which is perhaps the worst situation a young player could be in heading into their second year. That prompted the Vikings to sign Bashaud Breeland in June 2021, setting the veteran up to take Dantzler’s spot with the starters.
The predicament only worsened when the Vikings began training camp in August. The coaches asked Dantzler to bulk up during the offseason. The added weight cost him much of his speed and agility, which Dantzler sorely lacked coming into the league. This significantly impacted his performance at practice, and Zimmer bluntly stated that Kris Boyd was playing at a higher level than Dantzler. Weeks later, the Vikings contemplated trading Dantzler to the San Francisco 49ers after Jason Verrett suffered a torn ACL in their season opener.
Despite all of the criticism Dantzler received from the coaching staff over two years, he still played at an elite level for his age. He finished his inaugural season as the highest-graded rookie corner in the league (70.9) to play a minimum of 20% of their snaps, per PFF. He improved his play in his second year by being more consistent every week. He finished the season as the second-highest-graded corner (73.8) from his draft class behind A.J. Terrell.
Advanced metrics also indicate that Dantzler is performing well. Nick Shook released a list featuring the top-10 coverage players in 2021 according to NFL Next Gen Stats, with Cam Dantzler ranked seventh. The methodology factors in the following statistics, to which I added Dantzler’s numbers in parentheses:
- Passer rating allowed (74)
- Catch rate allowed below expectation (-7.4%)
- Tight window percentage (20.6%)
- Target rate (19.6%)
- Average separation (2.8 yards)
- Targeted expected points added (-18.2)
You can read the methodology above for a more detailed report on these stats. But in layman’s terms: Dantzler exceeded expectations and performed at a high level.
With Zimmer out of the picture, you would think that the new coaches would see Dantzler as an underutilized asset they can groom into a permanent fixture of Ed Donatell’s defense. However, considering that the Vikings selected two cornerbacks in the first four rounds of the 2022 draft, that’s not likely the case. Many pundits viewed Andrew Booth Jr. as a first-round talent before injuries hurt his draft stock, and Akayleb Evans is Kwesi Adofo-Mensah’s draft crush. Adofo-Mensah reportedly sat in a dark room for hours watching Evans, which totally isn’t creepy at all.
Therefore, I’m going to argue that Dantzler’s margin for error is even lower under the new coaching staff. Before, Dantzler got benched for a veteran cornerback, a common occurrence for young defensive backs. Now there’s a possibility he could lose his job to a player who is seen as having more upside than him. Of course, this isn’t likely to happen immediately. However, if Booth or Evans start to play well at practices within the next year like Kris Boyd did, I would not be surprised if that becomes the catalyst for Adofo-Mensah to tell Kevin O’Connell: Hey, I think the guy I drafted is ready for a bigger role.
This upcoming season is critical for Dantzler. Bashaud Breeland is gone, and Patrick Peterson is on a one-year deal. After this year, Dantzler will be the oldest cornerback under contract. He needs to assert himself not only as a solid contributor on defense, as he has shown to be capable of, but also as a leader. Many young players are vying for snaps at cornerback, and the best way to stand out from the pack is to play the role of a veteran.
Even if Dantzler emerges as an essential figure in the Vikings’ locker room, there’s still a good chance of him being the odd man out when his contract ends — especially with contract extensions for Justin Jefferson and Irv Smith Jr. looming. In his two years with the Vikings, Dantzler has not been given a fair chance to succeed. That may continue to be the case unless he asserts himself as an invaluable member of the defense.