It's still very early in the season, but Bashaud Breeland has not had the kind of positive impact the Vikings were anticipating when they signed him this summer to bolster their depth at cornerback. Quite the opposite, in fact.
The statistics are brutal for Breeland through two games. Among 75 cornerbacks who have played at least 80 snaps, he ranks dead last in Pro Football Focus grade. Per PFF, Breeland has allowed nine catches on 12 targets in his coverage for 155 yards and three touchdowns, with Joe Burrow and Kyler Murray combining for a passer rating of 156.3 (just shy of a perfect 158.3) on those attempts. He's also missed six tackles, which is a major no-no when playing for Mike Zimmer.
The touchdowns allowed and missed tackles both lead all NFL corners, while Breeland's yards and passer rating allowed are also in the bottom three at the position. It wouldn't be a stretch whatsoever to say he's been the worst starting cornerback in the league through two weeks.
Although PFF stats aren't perfect, the eye test confirms Breeland's struggles. The Bengals game alone featured him being flagged for pass interference that set up a touchdown, getting shook on a route by Tee Higgins for a big gain, watching Ja'Marr Chase run right past him for a 50-yard TD, and a plethora of missed tackles. The Bengals decided not to throw towards Patrick Peterson much, instead choosing to pick on Breeland and having a lot of success doing it.
After the game, he admitted he was a little rusty, made some key mistakes, and got banged up as a tackler in his first game since undergoing offseason shoulder surgery.
Breeland was much less of a disaster against the Cardinals, but he was stiff-armed by A.J. Green on a screen pass touchdown and was later burned off the line by Green for a 29-yard gain. He exited the game in the second half after hurting his back.
It was notable that second-year corner Cameron Dantzler was the player who entered the game in Arizona when Breeland went out. Dantzler was one of the bigger positive surprises of the 2020 season for the Vikings, starting ten games as a rookie and showing a lot of promise, so his fall during this offseason was a fairly shocking one. Not only did he lose the battle for a starting job to Breeland, but he was passed by Kris Boyd on the depth chart and wound up as a healthy inactive for Week 1.
In just around six months, Dantzler went from being viewed as the Vikings' top corner to not even cracking the top five on game day. He simply hadn't played well enough in practice during training camp, and Mike Zimmer also challenged him to play special teams in order to get on the field.
It was a wake-up call for the 23-year-old, and he responded with a great week of practice. Dantzler was active for Week 2, stepped in for an injured Breeland late, and looked like he hadn't missed a beat in his 16 snaps. He allowed just two catches on five targets (although one was dropped), with his big highlight being a pass breakup in the end zone that was crucial to giving the Vikings a chance to win the game.
"Dantzler practiced a lot better this week," Zimmer said after the game. "I think maybe him being inactive last week made him understand that he has to do better. It was good he made a play in the end zone there on the third-down play. I think he missed a tackle, too. He’s gotta keep grinding."
“It was quite a surprise," Dantzler said about being a healthy scratch in the opener. "But I feel like that humbled me and make me hungry. Just came to practice every day and worked harder, so that won’t ever happen again."
Now the question for the Vikings becomes whether or not Breeland should keep his starting job. After being limited during the first practice of the week, he participated in full on Thursday, suggesting the back injury isn't serious and he'll be available to play against the Seahawks and their dynamic passing game.
But should he?
If the decision were based just on these two games, Dantzler would get the nod. But that's not how it works, and it's far too early to give up on an eight-year veteran like Breeland after two games. He's had success in the NFL and won the job during camp for a reason. After shaking off the rust of a horrendous day at the office in Cincinnati, he was decent against the Cardinals and could continue to improve.
At the same time, the games matter. Breeland hasn't gotten it done so far, and putting him out there against D.K. Metcalf and Tyler Lockett while dealing with a back that may not be 100 percent seems like a recipe for disaster. Not only is Dantzler a bigger part of the Vikings' future than Breeland, he may well give them the best chance to win games now — and they desperately need a win this week.
The coverage and playmaking upside Dantzler displayed as a rookie hasn't gone away. Even Breeland himself has noticed it since arriving in Minnesota.
"Cam is really a starter in this league," Breeland said last week. "He’s got all the attributes, talent and size, and the mindset. He just really needs his chance to get out there and prove it, you know what I mean? Preseason, he had a little struggle here and there in preseason, but to me, what I see on the field and at practice, he’s really one of the best corners we’ve got on this team."
Dantzler got into Zimmer's doghouse this offseason with his performance in practice. Other factors that we don't know about may have been involved. But it's hard not to look at how he played in the fourth quarter in Arizona, look at how Breeland has struggled in both games, and wonder if the Vikings wouldn't be at least 1-1 if Dantzler had been given that job from the outset.
With a must-win game against the Seahawks this weekend, now might be the time to move past whatever Dantzler did wrong this offseason and make the switch.
“We’ll just see," Zimmer said. "We’ve got to have more than two corners. I thought he did some good things last week. He’s just got to continue that. He’s got to keep progressing, keep competing, keep fighting."
Dantzler is ready to embrace any opportunity he gets, whether that's on defense or special teams.
"I’m comfortable with whatever decision they make," he said. "If I don’t start, whenever my number’s called, I’ll be ready. If I do start, I’ll be ready to start. Last year, I didn’t play a lot of special teams, so this year, I’m going to do that. I’m up for the challenge. Whatever I have to do to play. Even if it’s holding up a field goal, I would do that, just to do whatever to help the team win."
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