Cameron Dantzler's marching orders after his rookie season were to bulk up the slender 6-foot-2, 188-pound frame earning him the nickname "The Needle" in high school.
Because the needle kept breaking. The Vikings cornerback missed five games last season with rib and hamstring injuries and a concussion. Then a right quadriceps issue sidelined him through most of his first spring practices in Minnesota.
So when Dantzler arrived for his second annual "DB retreat" in Scottsdale, Ariz., earlier this month, hosted by his mentor, Ryan Clark, the former Steelers safety and current ESPN analyst, he worked on fortifying himself physically and mentally.
"Lifting was huge with me for Cam," Clark said. "Making sure the lifts were correct, but also lifts to build mass. You need bigger shoulders for contact. You need bigger legs to hold up throughout the season with the pounding and running."
Dantzler was among about 20 defensive backs, including Washington safety Landon Collins and Carolina cornerback Donte Jackson, at Clark's annual retreat. It was six days of on-field skills work at Chaparral High School, athletic and weight regimens at D1 Training, film study with Clark, and shared tips about recovery routines.
All proved useful to Dantzler, the 2020 third-round pick who flashed potential as a rookie with four pass breakups, two interceptions and a forced fumble in 11 games. His goal now is to appear in all 17 regular season games to prove his durability, aided by a newfound weekly routine of stretching, ice and compression treatments. He said he reported to camp at 192 pounds.
"He's a little bit bigger," coach Mike Zimmer said. "He's still got to get in the weight room and things like that. He came off the field way too much last year, so if he gets a couple hits on him, he's got to stay the heck out there and go compete."
After Zimmer relied on young and inexperienced corners through a tumultuous 2020 season, the Vikings have signed a flurry of veteran cornerbacks. Three — Patrick Peterson, Mackensie Alexander and Bashaud Breeland — could start over Dantzler.
Dantzler said he has embraced the experience around him. It's what he has done before. He met Clark, who describes Dantzler as a "little brother," after the two ran into each other at Mississippi State during a recruiting visit for Clark's son, Jordan. Dantzler quickly reached out to Clark, wanting to train with and learn from the NFL veteran.
Dantzler did the same in a recent training camp practice. He sought advice from Peterson, the former three-time All-Pro for the Cardinals, after he was beat on a Kirk Cousins deep ball.
"I was asking him because I got beat on the post by K.J. [Osborn]," Dantzler said. "I was asking him how fast you think I should [back]pedal out? Because sometimes I be too patient and get beat a little bit."
Peterson preached the importance of eye discipline: reading the quarterback and the receiver's release from the line of scrimmage. Dantzler heard similar tips from Clark after his NFL debut, when Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers aired out a 45-yard touchdown to Marquez Valdes-Scantling against Dantzler. It was a speed release, Clark told him, meaning turn and run. But Dantzler hesitated a beat too long.
Film study was another key component to Dantzler's offseason. He emphasized learning coverages from multiple positions, so he knows where his help is coming from.
Clark and Dantzler also talked through his coverage issues near the goal line and when he was pressing receivers at the line, which are two areas where Dantzler's long arms should help him disrupt throws – if he's in the right place.
"I wanted to see him with great eyes in and out of breaks," Clark said. "I felt that's where he can get better. If your eyes are better, now it puts you a step closer to the play. When you have that type of length and ball skills, now it's interceptions and not [pass breakups]."
Zimmer said he also wants Dantzler to have "a little more belief in himself." The 22-year-old corner admits that his confidence slipped as a rookie, but that his mind is in the right place now.
"I lost my confidence a little bit beginning of last year because I wasn't playing to my standard," Dantzler said. "But I feel like I gained that confidence back as the season went on, and I'm very confident heading into Year 2."