Remember when Minnesota Vikings fans were all excited about Cameron Dantzler?
That was only one season ago, but it feels like ages. In 2020, the third-round pick out of Mississippi State felt like a steal. His long, lanky frame, coupled with a knack for coverage, flashed impressive potential as a rookie. He broke into the starting lineup and earned renown as a standout on the Pro Football Writers of America All-Rookie Team in 2020.
Fans were excited about Dantzler after such a promising season. After years of trying to find quality corners in the draft, Rick Spielman appeared to find a spiritual successor to Xavier Rhodes. Or at least, that’s what we all thought. Then the 2021 season happened.
The sophomore slump is not a rare phenomenon. Many rookies excel early in their careers due to a variety of factors. Teams don’t ask them to do too much so they can focus on their strengths. There’s a lack of tape out on their tendencies and weaknesses. Or they’re simply healthier because they don’t have wear and tear from playing in the league. Expectations can often be the bugaboo in Year 2, as teams ask promising rookies to step into a more significant role while wearing a bigger target on their back.
But in the case of Dantzler, his slump was more mystifying than your average second-year disappointment. As a new coaching staff self-scouts what potential remains in this promising young player, they’ll need to take a closer look at what happened in 2021 before they can accurately project what’s possible in 2022.
Why did Dantzler end up in Zimmer’s Doghouse?
There’s actually a not-so-crazy case to be made that when Dantzler was on the field in 2021, he wasn’t the liability that some made him out to be. In fact, you could argue that Dantzler played well in his limited capacity last season.
PFF had Dantzler ranked as the highest-rated corner on the Vikings’ defense in 2021 despite not being a full-time starter. Dantzler also made the list of top-10 coverage players according to NFL.com’s Next-Gen Stats. According to Next-Gen Stats, Dantzler performed exceptionally well in some metrics, especially in yards per target allowed (4.9 yards, one of the lowest in the league) and fewest yards after catch per reception (2.3 yards, fourth-fewest in the league.)
I don’t blame you if you’re scoffing at a bunch of football nerds cherry-picking stats to make Dantzler’s disappointing 2021 look good. However, it’s not evidence that can be entirely dismissed.
To many viewers, Dantzler failed the eye test in 2021. He just didn’t look as good. He seemed far too timid, and his razor-thin frame got him outmuscled in contested-catch situations. Perhaps the moment that cemented this impression in the minds of many was the crippling mistake against the Detroit Lions on the road, handing Minnesota its most embarrassing loss of the season.
It was a drive from hell for Vikings fans. We all sat and watched as Zimmer played conservative, off-coverage defense and let Jared Goff continue to beat them with shallow crossers and checkdowns as the Lions marched down the field. The drive finally started to sputter as a fourth-and-two from the 11-yard line gave the Vikings’ defense a chance to put this insufferable game on ice. Instead, we watched the easiest pitch-and-catch of 2021. Amon-Ra St. Brown‘s simple curl route on the goal line is caught with Dantzler desperately playing catchup from nearly five yards away.
As Patrick Peterson broke down on his show All Things Covered, Dantzler was way out of position. After an entire drive of seemingly having “don’t get beat deep” drilled into his skull, Dantzler seemed to forget that there wasn’t any field left behind him for them to go deep on.
But therein lies the problem with Dantzler’s 2021. Like too many players on this Vikings team, he seemed to suffer from a crisis of confidence.
There are plenty of reasons for that, many of which were arguably a result of the coaching staff. Dantzler found himself in Zimmer’s doghouse for mysterious reasons. Zim benched him for Bashaud Breeland, a player who turned out to be worse than Dantzler by just about every metric.
Dantzler’s snap counts were beyond erratic. He boasted 92% of snaps in Week 4 against the Cleveland Browns but then didn’t see starting time again until Week 8 despite playing exceedingly well against the Browns. Throw in injuries and COVID issues, and Dantzler’s season was a mismanaged cocktail of unfortunate circumstances.
But this is precisely why Vikings fans shouldn’t give up on Dantzler. As Rob Searles points out, Dantzler was far from a liability in the eight games where the Vikings featured him as a starter. When combining Dantzler’s production in the eight games where he played 90% or more snaps, his numbers are as follows:
- 55 targets
- 31 receptions
- 265 yards
- 3 touchdowns
- 1 interception
- 4.8 yards/target (Dantzler led NFL corners with 4.7 yards/target on the year)
- 79.7 passer rating when targeted
Those are not superstar stats. But are they the numbers of a young player we should count out entering only his third season? Absolutely not.
And therein lies my fascination with Dantzler. As Kevin O’Connell and Ed Donatell move forward on their restoration project of many of Minnesota’s underachievers from last season, you’d have to imagine Dantzler is near the top of their list of prospects they’re intrigued with.
If he is indeed getting stronger and dedicated to coming back with a winning attitude, then Dantzler may be able to get his groove back in 2022. And if this Vikings defense is going to have a chance at making this team competitive, it will likely rely on Dantzler to take that step as we await rookie Andrew Booth’s development and fade the aging Patrick Peterson.
The Kwesi Adofo-Mensah regime is hoping to bring a breath of fresh air to a stale situation in Minnesota, and Cam Dantzler may be ready to take advantage of it. His setbacks in 2021 remain rather enigmatic, but perhaps O’Connell and Donatell are just the men to crack the case.