Once upon a time, a mere six months ago, Cameron Dantzler was the top cornerback on the Vikings' roster.
The 2020 third-round pick was coming off a rookie season in which he outplayed fellow rookie Jeff Gladney, who was picked two rounds before him. Dantzler dealt with some injuries and inconsistency, but the tall, skinny corner from Mississippi State showed plenty of flashes of promise and was one of the bright spots in a disappointing season.
Fast forward to September and a fully healthy Dantzler can't even get on the field for the Vikings. He was inactive in Week 1 despite not dealing with any injury issues, with former Day 3 picks Kris Boyd and Harrison Hand active and clearly ahead of him on the depth chart. Patrick Peterson, Bashaud Breeland, and Mackensie Alexander, three veterans who were signed to one-year deals in free agency, have constituted the Vikings' starting trio at the position since early in training camp.
It's a fairly shocking fall from grace that raises several questions. How did Dantzler plummet this far? How badly would Breeland and Boyd need to struggle for him to get another opportunity soon? And what does all this mean for his place in the team's long-term plans?
Regarding the first question, the answer is simple: Dantzler hasn't played well enough this offseason to earn a spot. Mike Zimmer said bluntly during training camp that Boyd had been better in practice, which is why he was ahead on the depth chart. Co-defensive coordinator Andre Patterson echoed the same sentiment when asked by KFAN's Dan Barreiro this week about Dantzler.
“The one thing about this business is it’s a production business," Patterson said. "You have to go out there and play well to be on the field. All the guys on the team, at every position, are competing to go play. And if you’re not playing well enough and other guys are playing better than you, you’ve gotta play the guys that are playing the best at this moment. The good thing is he can fix it. He can fix it by the way he goes out in practice and the way he plays. Right now, the guys that are in front of him are just playing better than him."
It's anyone's guess as to what caused Dantzler's play to slip in his second season. After all, we're talking about someone who put up great advanced stats against the likes of Ja'Marr Chase in the SEC and then went out and played very well in the second half of last season, including phenomenal games against the Jaguars and Bears in December. Dantzler was PFF's second-highest graded rookie corner last year, trailing only the Chiefs' L'Jarius Sneed. From Week 11 to Week 16, he allowed a passer rating of 41.9 on targets in his coverage, picked off two passes, and forced a fumble.
One theory that has come up in discussions — and this is merely speculation — is that Dantzler adding weight to his frame this offseason caused his speed and agility to decline. Dantzler fell to the third round primarily due to his thin frame and his 4.6-second 40. If you're already slow at 185 pounds, adding 5-10 pounds in an attempt to become more durable isn't going to improve your speed.
It could also be an effort thing. Perhaps Dantzler was satisfied with his rookie season and got comfortable, assuming he was locked into a starting spot again this year. Again, I don't know. According to Patterson, it hasn't been one specific thing for Dantzler, it's the entire package.
“It’s just all of the skills that go along with playing corner and being competitive," Patterson told Barreiro. "So that’s what it comes down to, you gotta go out there and you gotta compete in practice. If you can’t compete in practice and you’re not competitive in practice, then you’re not going to be able to go out and play in the games. Like I said, the good part is he can fix it. He’s talented enough, it’s just a matter of him going out there and fixing it."
As for what this means in the short and long term, I'm not entirely sure. Breeland and Boyd had rough outings against the Bengals, but it will presumably take several more of those for Dantzler to get another opportunity this season if those guys are consistently outplaying him in practice. With Dantzler not having the flexibility to play nickel or possessing a special teams background, he may well be inactive again in Week 2.
Zimmer's two-sentence comment on Dantzler during his Wednesday press conference said a lot.
"First thing, he's gotta play special teams," Zimmer said. "If you're a backup player, you've gotta play special teams."
From a big-picture perspective, the upside is still there. It's notable that the 49ers, when exploring their options at cornerback following Jason Verrett's injury, inquired about a trade for Dantzler (per The Athletic's David Lombardi). The Vikings would likely have to be very impressed with the offer to pull the trigger on such a deal, considering Dantzler, Boyd, and Hand are the only corners on the roster under contract next season. Gladney's domestic violence arrest and subsequent release threw a wrench in Minnesota's young depth at the position.
Dantzler's size, coverage ability, and ball skills all still exist — he just hasn't shown them in practice this year. But like Patterson said, it's fixable. This slide down the depth chart from promising young corner to healthy scratch doesn't have to derail his career. Maybe this can be a wake-up call that motivates him to bounce back and seize his next opportunity, whether that comes in a couple weeks, a couple months, or 2022.
The bottom line is that it sounds like the onus is on Dantzler to step up his game and earn his way back onto the field.
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