The old saying about the NFL Combine is that players can’t often help their draft stock but they can certainly hurt it. That was the case with Mississippi State cornerback Cameron Dantzler.
He ran ran a 4.64 40-yard dash, which was the second slowest of any player at his position in Indianapolis.
PFF’s draft guide was blunt about the showing: “He’ll drop.”
The guide was prophetic. Despite ranking 50th on PFF’s Big Board and being largely mocked as a second-round pick, the skinny 6-foot-2, 188-pounder with the nickname of “The Needle” (because he’s skinny but it hurts when he hits) slid to the back of the third round where the Vikings drafted him with the 89th overall selection.
“I know I’m faster than 4.6,” Dantzler said. “I just want to show that at the next level, keep up with some of the top receivers in the league and run toe-to-toe with them.”
In actual football games, he did run toe-to-toe with the SEC’s best receivers and routinely come out on top. Per PFF data, opponents targeted the Vikings’ new cornerback 96 times, completed just 41 passes with one touchdown and five interceptions over three seasons and he had 20 pass breakups in the process.
His most impressive work came against LSU’s Ja’Marr Chase, in which he gave up just one catch for seven yards versus the future top 10 pick.
“I knew going into the LSU game that they had a great receiving corps, and their go-to guy was Ja’Marr Chase,” Dantzler said. “Coach, he put me up to the challenge, and I accepted. I just studied what he likes to do – some of his strengths, some of his weaknesses – throughout the week, and I just tried to critique the things he doesn’t like to do. He doesn’t like when you’re really physical with him, he just tries to bully most of the time. So I just studied that and brought that into the game and held my own that game, and I thought I did a great job against him.”
Because of his impressive numbers and tape draft analysts everywhere tagged him as one of the best value picks of the draft. PFF’s Mike Renner included Dantzler as the Vikings’ best pick, while Anthony Tresch wrote that he was one of the steals of the draft and Bleacher Report’s Maurice Morton ranked him as the No. 2 steal.
At the NFL Combine, Mike Zimmer described in detail his feelings about players whose tape does not match their 40 time.
“Richard Sherman did the same thing,” Zimmer said. “He was 4.55. He’s played in the league 10 years. So it’s all about how they play on tape. And, really, the smart players can play quicker, not just quicker in their career but quicker by reacting quicker, because they see so much more. The vision. Some guy might have great vision. They talk about these quarterbacks having great vision. Well, that allows them to play a lot faster than, a guy, he sees this and everybody else sees that.”
The Needle now steps into a situation in which he has a chance to compete for playing time right away. The Vikings will have Mike Hughes, first-rounder Jeff Gladney, Holton Hill, Dantzler and fifth-rounder Harrison Hand all battling for spots.
NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein projected that he could adapt quickly.
“Dantzler can play in a variety of coverages but is a future starter as a confident press-man corner with early starting potential,” Zierlein wrote in his draft profile.
There will be work to do in Zimmer’s School For Cornerbacks. That begins with Pass Interference Class. The Vikings’ head coach has said in the past that the biggest adjustment for corners comes in learning to play by different rules.
Dantzler was flagged several times during his 2019 season for interference even with the NCAA’s much looser rules.
“Tough love is the best love, so I’m looking forward to being coached by Coach Mike Zimmer,” Dantzler said. “I know he likes his cornerbacks tall, physical and aggressive, and I’m just ready to show the NFL what I can do.”
The Needle will likely have to add some muscle to deal with the strength of NFL receivers.
“That’s something I knew I’d have to work on – get stronger, get better,” he said. “I’ve been doing that, I’m 190 now. I’m trying to do all the things that I had with a weakness in my game when I was in college.”