A player's third season in the NFL is a big one. Unless they've already established themselves as a star in their first two seasons, year three is a crucial time for a player to take another step forward and get close to earning a second contract.
The Vikings' top pick in the 2020 draft, Justin Jefferson, is already a superstar and one of the best players in the league.
Their second and third-round picks, unsurprisingly, aren't on that level. Both have shown a lot of potential so far, but 2022 is a huge season for their growth and their long-term outlook.
Guard Ezra Cleveland, drafted 58th, and cornerback Cameron Dantzler, drafted 89th, have emerged as solid starters heading into their third season. This year is about finding out if they can be more than that.
Pro Football Focus recently ranked its top 10 third-year breakout candidates for 2022, and both Cleveland (8th) and Dantzler (10th) made the list, making the Vikings the only team with two players represented.
Here's PFF's Mike Renner on Cleveland:
There was a lot to like about Cleveland as a prospect coming out of Boise State back in 2020, but there were also a lot of reasons why he may not hit the ground running. He was a tackle-guard convert who tested out like an elite athlete yet hadn’t put up much in the way of elite tape. With two years of starting experience at both guard positions under his belt in the NFL, we’ve seen his physical capability start to shine as he earned a 75.4 overall grade over the second half of last season. Plus, he just turned 24 in May — you can see why there’s a lot to get excited about. For comparison, rookie first-rounder Cole Strange turns 24 at the end of July. Cleveland and Christian Darrisaw look like they’ll be holding down the left side of the Vikings line for a long time to come.
And on Dantzler:
Dantzler quietly had a stellar 2021 season, although it didn’t quite come with the splash plays to get him noticed. His one pick and six pass-breakups don’t jump out, but when you realize he only allowed 311 yards on 63 targets (33 completions) things start to look a little different. There’s also good reason to think that he would be a dynamite fit in Ed Donatell’s split field coverage-heavy defense. Dantzler only allowed four catches on eight targets for 40 yards with two forced incompletions on 64 snaps of quarters coverage variations last season.
It's hard not to agree with the premise that Cleveland and Dantzler are two of the better year three breakout candidates in the league.
Cleveland is cemented as the starting left guard on an improved offensive line, and he'll go into the season knowing Christian Darrisaw will be starting to his left and Garrett Bradbury will (almost certainly) be starting to his right. After converting from playing tackle in college to playing right guard as a rookie and then moving to left guard last year, he now gets to play the same position for the second straight year. With Cleveland's athleticism, power, and intelligence, a jump to becoming a top-20 guard in the league (or better) is very much on the table.
Dantzler, meanwhile, has a case to be maybe the most underrated player on the Vikings' roster. The advanced stats have loved his performance through two seasons, and if he can shake some of his issues with inconsistency and giving up big plays, he could become something of a true No. 1 cornerback. Dantzler should enter the season as a starter, though he'll need to play well to hold off a push from rookie Andrew Booth Jr.
Along with Darrisaw and tight end Irv Smith Jr. — whose year three breakout was ruined by a knee injury last August — Cleveland and Dantzler are the two most logical breakout candidates on the Vikings' roster. Tracking their individual seasons will be an interesting part of the Vikings' 2022 campaign.
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