It feels like ages ago, but there was a time when Cameron Dantzler, not Justin Jefferson, was the most hyped-up rookie on the Vikings' roster. The third-round pick from Mississippi State was a breakout star during training camp, making two of the biggest plays of the preseason period with a diving pass breakup and an interception on consecutive days in mid-August.
Dantzler's performance throughout camp earned him a start in Week 1 against the Packers alongside third-year players Holton Hill and Mike Hughes. There was a great deal of optimism when it came to his rookie season and the potential to be a rare instant contributor at cornerback on a Mike Zimmer defense.
Things didn't exactly work out that way – at least not immediately.
Dantzler was given a rude awakening in the NFL, allowing seven catches on seven targets against Aaron Rodgers, including a 45-yard touchdown pass right before halftime. Then came a rib injury that cost him two games and added ammo to pre-draft concerns about the durability of his 190-pound frame.
Once he returned, Dantzler continued to struggle in coverage. He gave up 90-plus yards and a touchdown against both the Seahawks and Falcons, although much of that damage came against a pair of elite receivers in D.K. Metcalf and Julio Jones. Then, after the bye week, Dantzler suffered a scary-looking injury to the head and neck area in Green Bay that caused him to miss almost all of the Vikings' three-game winning streak against divisional opponents.
By the time Week 11 against the Cowboys rolled around, all of the preseason hype surrounding Dantzler had more or less disappeared. Jefferson had long since stolen the spotlight among the rookie class, having gone from borderline starter during training camp to one of the most productive and explosive receivers in the NFL.
So, naturally, that's exactly when Dantzler began to remind everyone why the excitement was there in the first place. Over the past three weeks, the cornerback we saw in training camp has returned in full force. The positive signs began against the Cowboys and Panthers, but Sunday's win over the Jaguars was truly his breakout game.
Dantzler was simply spectacular against Jacksonville. He recorded his first career interception, which also happened to be the first pick by a Vikings cornerback this season. He allowed one catch on seven targets and immediately erased that completion by ripping the ball out of Chris Conley's hands for a second takeaway. Dantzler received a 93.0 grade from Pro Football Focus, making him the NFL's top corner in Week 13. It was one of the best single-game efforts by a Vikings CB in the Zimmer era.
"I feel like my confidence level is high," Dantzler said about his recent hot stretch. "I got the first few games out the way, got the butterflies out. I'm just studying plays a lot, staying in the film room, being coachable – taking it day by day and getting better at my craft."
In total, Dantzler has allowed five receptions for 51 yards on 14 targets since Week 11. Everything that the Vikings liked about him coming out of Mississippi State has shown up over the past three weeks, which bodes well for his future. Remember, Dantzler was a shutdown corner in the SEC who even played at a high level against historically good Alabama and LSU offenses. The only reason he fell to the Vikings at No. 89 overall was his thin frame and very slow 40 time.
Dantzler has proven, both in college and now in the NFL, that he doesn't need to have great speed to stick with receivers in man coverage. The 22 year-old is learning and growing every week and has started to use his length and physicality to make big plays when the ball comes his way. His emergence has been massive for a team that has been without Hill and Hughes for the majority of the season.
"He showed up in camp and he was making plays pretty early," Harrison Smith said on Monday. "I think getting into the games and facing some good quarterbacks early, some tough competition, allowed him to learn a lot, and he’s starting to put it to use. He’s playing decisively and making plays on the ball."
Dantzler's big game against the Jaguars was not only incredibly promising for his long-term outlook, it may well have saved the Vikings from an embarrassing and effectively season-ending defeat. His interception occurred just outside of the red zone with the Jaguars looking to add to a 9-0 lead in the second quarter. The Vikings' offense promptly seized that opportunity and scored a touchdown, which was a massive turn of events on the scoreboard.
His forced fumble and subsequent recovery was similarly important. The Jaguars trailed 21-16 and were close to midfield when Dantzler singlehandedly got the ball back for his offense. That led to a Dan Bailey field goal that put the Vikings up eight and eventually resulted in the game going to overtime. If not for those two plays – not to mention a couple forced incompletions on third down – the Vikings could've easily lost that game.
"Honestly, he continues to get better," Zimmer said after the game. "Last week [against Carolina] he made some plays on the ball, this week he had an interception and caused a fumble. I do think in time, with some more strength and a little bit more weight added on, he has a chance to be a good player because he does a lot of good things that people don't notice when the ball isn't going to him."
Dantzler will look to build on this breakout game in a much more imposing matchup next week. The Vikings' new No. 1 corner is in for a challenge against Tom Brady, Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, and Antonio Brown. If he continues playing at a high level, Dantzler has a chance to help lead Minnesota to the playoffs this season and lock down a starting role on this defense for many years to come.
"[Jeff] Gladney is playing well too," Zimmer said. "Hopefully we'll be set at corner for a while."
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