When Cameron Dantzler was playing high school football as a wiry cornerback in Hammond, La., he earned the nickname “The Needle.”
Why? “I was always skinny,” Dantzler said, “and when I hit you, it hurt.”
Embedded in the nickname — which Dantzler wore on a custom-made shirt in his introductory news conference — is the degree to which the cornerback tends to be underestimated. The Mississippi State product prides himself on packing more of a punch than his 190-pound frame would suggest.
His agency sent teams a video of Dantzler running the 40-yard dash at a pro day in Baton Rouge, La., to prove the 4.64-second time he posted at the combine was the product of a quadriceps injury; the video showed Dantzler running a hand-timed 4.38. Even after he had established himself as a cover corner by controlling receivers such as LSU’s Ja’Marr Chase during the 2019 season, Dantzler slipped to the third round of the draft, where the Vikings took him with the 89th overall pick.
The lack of fanfare around Dantzler’s game could eventually work to the Vikings’ benefit. They made him the second corner they selected in the first two days of the draft, pairing him with first-round pick Jeff Gladney in an effort to remake their cornerback group following the departures of Xavier Rhodes, Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander this offseason.
Like Gladney, Dantzler built his college résumé on a willingness to challenge receivers with a physical style of coverage; according to Pro Football Focus, quarterbacks posted only a 57.0 passer rating when they targeted him last season.
“I think the priority is — Zim [coach Mike Zimmer] says it the best — don’t let the receiver catch the ball,” General Manager Rick Spielman said. “He’s a young kid that’s still maturing and growing into his body, but he has such unique length, and the athleticism that goes along with that length gives him a chance to be a really good corner in this league.”
Whether Dantzler has the physical traits to handle NFL receivers could determine how successful he is at carrying out Zimmer’s edict for his corners. He added weight before the combine, following a program from Mississippi State nutritionist Pamela Bartz, but said he has always had a high metabolism that leaves him struggling to keep his weight up. He weighed in at 188 pounds at the combine and said last week he is up to 190 now.
“That’s something I knew I’d have to work on — get stronger, get better,” he said. “I’ve been doing that. I’m trying to do all the things [where] I had a weakness in my game when I was in college.”
The clip of Dantzler’s 40-yard dash, Spielman said, gave the Vikings’ scouts another chance to hand-time him off the video. “You can tell if it’s a 4.6 or a 4.3,” Spielman said. “Usually, it’s somewhere in between.”
The Vikings got a time that was faster than the 4.64 Dantzler ran at the combine, Spielman said. “It would have been great to go down there and time him in person, but unfortunately that’s not where we are at right now,” he said. “But it gave us a pretty good indication — a little banged up and still tried to gut it through at the combine, but I know he plays faster than what his 40 time was at the combine.”
Like Rhodes, Dantzler was mentored by former NFL cornerback Terrell Buckley. He listed corners Jalen Ramsey and Richard Sherman as players he tries to emulate. “Those guys have that confidence and swagger at the corner position,” he said. “I just try to critique and try to match my game to how they do theirs.”
He will need to fill out, and like Rhodes he will have to learn the line between physical coverage and pass interference in the NFL. But Dantzler seems confident he is going places: He has already launched a campaign to sell the “Needle” shirts he wore on draft weekend, in a partnership with the child hunger relief campaign No Kid Hungry.
His moniker, Dantzler believes, is one Vikings fans will want to know very soon.
“[Zimmer] loves his cornerbacks big, fast and nasty,” Dantzler said. “I just want to do whatever I can to contribute to the team and help bring a Super Bowl to the organization.”