Vikings Already Have an Elite Cornerback
After the departure of the three starting cornerbacks following the playoff loss against the 49ers in January of 2020, the previously elite Vikings secondary struggled badly. Xavier Rhodes signed in free agency with the Indianapolis Colts, and Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander became members of the Cincinnati Bengals. Vikings GM Rick Spielman tried to replace the group with his 2018 draft selection Mike Hughes and two players from the 2020 draft class – Jeff Gladney and Cameron Dantzler.
Sadly, Jeff Gladney and Mike Hughes didn’t work out for different reasons. Hughes was traded to the Chiefs after three mostly injury-plagued seasons in Minnesota, where he became a valuable piece of the Chiefs’ secondary. In the 2022 offseason, he agreed to join the Detroit Lions on a one-year contract.
Jeff Gladney played as a slot cornerback in his rookie campaign. The football part, however, is not important. He passed away on May 30th in a car accident at age 25.
Just one day after drafting Gladney, Spielman selected another cornerback when he picked Mississippi State’s Cameron Dantzler in the third round. He disappointed in the pre-draft process with a 40-yard dash of 4.64 seconds combined with his skinny frame, which is why he fell in the draft, despite some good tape.
The Vikings found themselves an excellent cornerback in the third round, and he proved it early. Justin Jefferson stole the show, but Dantzler had some eye-opening plays in training camp. Star receiver Adam Thielen learned really early how good the rookie already was.
Dantzler had a great pass breakup against Thielen. The veteran receiver makes most NFL cornerbacks problems and is hard to stop, but the rookie did it, and Thielen saw the potential.
In Week 1 of the 2020 season, he even started the game. The rivalry game against the Packers was a disaster. Dantzler started 10 of the 11 games he played in his rookie campaign. He missed various games with multiple injuries, but he improved that season. After missing two games with a concussion, the young cornerback was phenomenal in the final six games of his first professional season.
Dantzler struggled in the final drive against the Seahawks’ star receiver, DK Metcalf. But outside of that, he played a phenomenal rookie year. Overall, Dantzler finished the season with a PFF grade of 70.9, which ranked him as the 22nd best cornerback out of 121 eligible cornerbacks. He regularly matched up against the opponent’s top receiver and did a great job.
In 2021, Dantzler was replaced in the starting lineup. His replacements were Patrick Peterson, possibly the best cornerback of the last decade, and Beshaud Breeland.
The latter was a complete liability, yet Dantzler could not overtake him on the depth chart. The PFF grades reflect what every fan saw. Breeland received a grade of 47.2, 111th of 116 eligible players at the position. Dantzler, meanwhile, was graded as the 17th best cornerback with a grade of 73.8. He was the best cornerback of the Vikings in each of his first two years per PFF.
NFL.com writer Nick Shook released a ranking of the top-10 coverage players of the 2021 season, and Dantzler was one of them. He used data from NFL Next Gen Stats. The Dolphin star Xavien Howard opens the list at the 10th spot.
Cameron Dantzler checks in at position seven, as apparently the Vikings had an elite cornerback and didn’t even realize it.
Seeing Dantzler here might come as a surprise, but the metrics for him were too good to overlook. He posted a targeted EPA of -18.2 (10th among DBs). Dantzler excelled at limiting yards gained by opposing pass catchers, allowing just 4.9 yards per target in coverage, one of the lowest rates in the NFL. He also tied for the fourth-fewest yards after catch per reception allowed at 2.3. A tight-window percentage of 20.6 just barely nudged him into qualifying for the list, but it allowed for folks like me to realize Dantzler was better in coverage than most realized.Nick Shook, liked Dantzler a lot in 2021
Dantzler allowed a passer rating of 74 when he was targeted, which is an excellent number.
The young Falcons’ star, A.J. Terrell, finished first on the list. The Vikings cornerback did not match his numbers. However, he has shown to be a really good player. We might never know why Zimmer didn’t start his top cornerback in a make-or-break season for himself, in which Dantzler played just 69% of the snaps. He only started in place of Patrick Peterson when he was hurt and after Beshaud Breeland was cut.
With regained confidence, Dantzler could become the secret star of the upcoming season. The Vikings brought back Patrick Peterson, but he’s not getting any younger and is not the elite cornerback he once was. In addition, Kwesi Adofo-Mensah selected Andrew Booth Jr. in the second round of his first draft. Booth is a first-round talent who fell because of injuries. However, Dantzler has proven to be a good NFL cornerback, while Booth still has some things to learn.
The young player is not just getting his confidence back but also getting his body in better condition.
His skinny frame was always one of his biggest problems, and the added weight will help him. If he keeps his nickname, The Needle, remains to be seen, but his new nickname could be ‘shutdown cornerback.’
Janik Eckardt is a football fan who has a fable for numbers and stats. He chose the Vikings as his favorite team, despite Christian Ponder being the quarterback at the time. He is a walking soccer encyclopedia, loves watching sitcoms, and Classic rock is his music genre of choice. Arguing about the Vikings on Twitter is one of his favorite things to do. Follow him on Twitter if you like the Vikings: @JanikEckardt