“Iron sharpens iron” is an adage often used in August when many NFL teams are in the honeymoon phase for the upcoming season in training camp.
But for the Minnesota Vikings‘ cornerbacks core, they’re cast into the fires of the NFL season early, facing one of the most talented wide receiver cores in the league at every practice.
This has led to some early observations of the development of the young cornerbacks group, including one of training camp’s most entertaining battles involving third-year corner Cameron Dantzler and veteran wide receiver Adam Thielen.
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‘He’s in His Face Every Single Time’
SKOR North’s Judd Zulgad unfurled his training camp notes from a July 30 training camp practice, noting the matchup between Dantzler and Thielen.
“Dantzler versus Thielen, it is on and it is magnificent,” Zulgad said on the Purple Daily podcast. “Thielen caught some passes, but Dantzler, again man, he is in his face every single time. He is confident as hell.”
Dantzler’s early emergence in training camp is an encouraging update on the former 2020 third-round pick out of Mississippi State. After closing his rookie season playing at a Pro Bowl level, Dantzler landed in Mike Zimmer’s dog house in his sophomore season — not making his first start of the 2021 season until Week 7.
Dantzler watched as Bashaud Breeland took most of the starting reps early in the season and was benched twice in the first three weeks. Breeland struggled, ranking as one of the worst cornerbacks by Pro Football Focus (PFF) last season. Breeland’s poor performance and Dantzler’s benching led to the second-year corner taking some frustrations to social media.
But Dantzler also backed it up with his play, too.
Dantzler showed he deserved to be a starter, posting a 73.8 PFF grade in 2021, which was the 15th best grade among cornerbacks that played at least 50% of the most snaps by a cornerback this season.
“I felt like we were watching a guy who was being suppressed last camp and sort of knew it and just didn’t feel it,” Zulgad said. “They had brought in Breeland, which turned out to be a terrible mistake. At the time, we all thought, ‘veteran guy,’ but he was absolutely cooked — way too brash — and at some point, it backed up Dantzler’s progress.”
Cornerback has been one of the team’s most concerning positions over the past couple of seasons with losing bets on both veteran corners like Breeland and Mackensie Alexander and high-round draft picks not turning into viable starts.
Dantzler could help change course on the Vikings’ recent spell of bad luck at the position, recently being named a “secret superstar” by PFF.
“Cam Dantzler at that right corner spot has been really good. And the one good thing is the skill position players in this offense are really damn good so you’re getting tested. When it’s No. 1 vs. No. 1. good vs. good, you’re being tested. And my impression of my biggest takeaway is Cam Dantzler absolutely, positively looks up to that test. I don’t care at what point in camp this is big, this is important.”
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Other Vikings Corners Shining in Camp
Dantzler hasn’t been the only young cornerback to impress at training camp.
Second-round pick Andrew Booth Jr. out of Clemson has shown unwavering confidence for a first-year player at a position where embarrassment is assumed in a league that continues to favor the passing game. Booth picked off a pass in coverage against Justin Jefferson and has developed a contentious rivalry with Ihmir Smith-Marsette. His performance so far has not gone unnoticed to head coach Kevin O’Connell, who gave the rookie the go-ahead for more reps against the team’s No. 1 wide receiver in Jefferson.
“We’re in helmets, and one of the things that I loved about him coming out was his willingness to be physical, tackle,” O’Connell said in a July 28 press conference. “But what I saw yesterday was a guy who used all those jog-through reps. When you have an injured player like that who can’t take part in full-speed reps, that jog-through portion banked a lot of reps for Andrew and a lot of our other guys. It was great to see some of those reps come to fruition. He made a play on (the interception), he made a lot of plays where quarterbacks had to say ‘no’ to their first progression because of where he was, and it was a great start for him. As I did yesterday, I just challenged him to continue to stack that. As the installations start to stack up and we ask you to do a lot more, can you maintain?”
“There was no ‘safe’ feeling to how he was playing,” O’Connell added. “Playing the technique, playing it true, and he’s going to get a lot more opportunities against No. 18, and we’ll see how those go.”
Fourth-round rookie Akayleb Evans (Missouri) has also begun to find his bearings, recently notching a pass breakup against K.J. Osborn in practice on August 1.