Cameron Dantzler’s impressive performance during the Vikings’ early training camp practices served as an indication that the rookie might be worthy of extensive playing time in the regular-season opener against Green Bay. But no one could have predicted that Dantzler, a third-round pick, would not only start the game but play the most snaps of any corner on the roster.
Dantzler played 55 more snaps than Jeff Gladney, whom the Vikings selected with their second pick of the first round at No. 31. Dantzler was taken 58 picks after Gladney. “We had three other guys playing, but we did use him some later in the ballgame and I thought he did well,” coach Mike Zimmer said Monday when asked about Gladney.
Zimmer’s words said one thing but his actions spoke far louder and served as a clear indication that he felt the third-round pick was far ahead of the first-rounder. Dantzler ended up playing 64 of 78 snaps (82 percent). Third-year corner Holton Hill played 59 snaps (76 percent) and 2018 first-round pick Mike Hughes played 58 snaps (74 percent). Hughes moved from the outside to the inside the majority of time in the nickel, while Hill and Dantzler played outside. Gladney played only nine snaps in a Packers’ 43-34 victory that felt far more lopsided.
“My performance, individually, I thought I played a good game for my first game as a rookie, but it could have been better,” said Dantzler, who picked off two passes and broke up 10 last season at Mississippi State. “I missed two tackles here and there, gave up a touchdown, but I still haven’t lost my confidence. I just have to move forward and continue to prepare for the other guys I’ll be facing.”
The touchdown came with 14 seconds remaining in the second quarter, when Aaron Rodgers found Marquez-Valdes Scantling with a 45-yard touchdown pass that beat Dantzler despite the fact he was running with the Packers wide receiver the entire time.
“It’s a learning experience,” Zimmer said. “There was 25 seconds left in the half, and he’s trying to play bump-and-run on the wide receiver instead of understanding the situation there. But other than that, I thought he did a pretty good job. He missed a tackle early in the ballgame that ended up being about 7 yards. He contested a catch by (Davante) Adams early in the ballgame that he was all over it, just didn’t get the ball out. He had some good moments in there. It just gets overshadowed by the long one right before the half.”
Said Dantzler of the touchdown: “Starting at the line, I knew I was going against a fast receiver. Just knowing the situation, there’s 21 seconds left, I should have put my hands on him to slow him down because he’s a very fast receiver. I should have known a guy like Aaron Rodgers, he always goes for the deep ball, and for the touchdown. It’s just something I have to know. (I’ll) put it past me and learn from it so I just feel like when I get in that situation again I know what to do.”
Dantzler wasn’t the only Vikings cornerback to give up a touchdown on Sunday and it didn’t help that Rodgers (32-of-44, 364 yards, four touchdowns) did not get sacked once by a Minnesota defensive line that was missing standout left end Danielle Hunter. The Vikings’ struggles at corner also were not a surprise considering the team lost all three of its starters from 2019 (Xavier Rhodes, Trae Waynes and nickel corner Mackensie Alexander) and replaced them with three players who entered Sunday with a total of 10 career starts. This is why many thought the Vikings might sign one veteran corner this offseason to try to provide some leadership and stabilize things.
The issue now is how quickly Zimmer can get this trio up to speed and at what point he plans to officially include Gladney in a meaningful way? The Packers film, as painful as it might be to watch, is valuable because with no preseason it’s the first game film the coaching staff will have to use as a teaching tool for a group of players who need it.
That’s why it was surprising Gladney did not get more of a look on Sunday, since it wasn’t as if the rest of the corners were exactly locking down Adams (14 catches, 156 yards, two touchdowns), Valdes-Scantling (four passes, 96 yards, one touchdown) and others. As Gladney watched from the sideline for much of the game, one theory was that the meniscus surgery he had in the spring might have been holding him back, as it did at the start of camp. But he did play six snaps on special teams and wasn’t on the injury report last week.
“As we continue to move forward, I’ll be able to tell,” Zimmer said of how he will evaluate the progress of his corners. “We’ve still got to work some technique and things like that. There were some issues where they should have been in a different alignment than they were. Those kind of things will show up as we continue to move forward. I can do a better job with them for sure.
” … You just stick with it. You just kind of keep going and keep trying to harp on them to do their best and iron out the little mistakes that they did make. It gets back to technique a lot of times and then alignments, making sure you’re in a proper alignment, proper hand placements. But it’s good to find out where we were and where we’ve got to go from there.”
It will be interesting to see if Gladney begins to fit into Zimmer’s plan starting Sunday in Indianapolis.