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With a few more pounds and a new number, Cameron ‘The Needle’ Dantzler battles for starting job with Vikings

Dantzler hopes his offseason work will get him back to being a regular starter. As a rookie in 2020, Dantzler started 10 of the 11 games he played but only started seven games in 2021

NFL: Denver Broncos at Minnesota Vikings
Minnesota Vikings cornerback Cameron Dantzler (27) reacts with teammates against the Denver Broncos during the first quarter Aug. 14, 2021, at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.
Jeffrey Becker / USA Today Sports
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EAGAN, Minnesota — No matter how much weight Cameron Dantzler gains, he insists his nickname “The Needle” is here to stay.

The 6-foot-2 cornerback got it as a 140-pound sophomore at Saint Thomas Aquinas High School in Hammond, La., in 2013. He has gradually work his way the weight scale, and checked in at 182 pounds as Vikings rookie in 2020.

Last year, Dantzler beefed up to 185 pounds. Now, entering his third season, he’s at 191 and might put on a few more pounds.

“I’ve gained weight and I’m stronger, and I’m faster,” Dantzler said. “I checked all the boxes I needed to check this offseason to get better. I’m getting my body right. I’ve got a nutritionist. I’m lifting weights. But that name ‘The Needle’ has stuck with me. It’ s not going anywhere.”

Dantzler hopes his offseason work will get him back to being a regular starter. As a rookie in 2020, Dantzler, a third-round draft pick out of Mississippi State, started 10 of the 11 games he played but part of that was because of the Vikings’ depleted secondary at the time.

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Dantzler initially looked primed to stay in the lineup in 2021. But last June the Vikings signed veteran cornerback Bashaud Breeland to a one-year, $3 million deal, and he beat out Dantzler in training camp.

Breeland started the first 13 games, though Pro Football Focus ranked him throughout the season as one of the NFL’s worst cornerbacks. Dantzler didn’t deny there was disappointment with then-Vikings coach Mike Zimmer continuing to stick with Breeland.

“It was kind of kind of frustrating, but at the end of the day, it’s a business decision,” he said. “The coaches did what they thought was best.”

After Week 3, Dantzler, who was inactive as a healthy scratch in the opener and did not play on defense in the third game, tweeted, “I’m tired of biting my tongue about this whole situation fr (for real).”

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Minnesota Vikings
Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Noah Brown (85) and Minnesota Vikings cornerback Cameron Dantzler (27) and safety Harrison Smith (22) during the game Oct. 31, 2021, at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.
Jeffrey Becker / USA Today Sports

“That was just a young me, a little frustration,” he admitted. “But I meant no harm by it. I was just a little frustrated.”

Zimmer said after the tweet was posted and then deleted that Dantzler would “be talked to.” However, Dantzler said coaches did not address it.

As it turned out, Dantzler did start four of the first 13 games, replacing Patrick Peterson, who had a hamstring injury and then was on the COVID-19 reserve list. Then, after Breeland was released for getting into a verbal altercation with coaches and teammates at practice, Dantzler was inserted into the lineup for the final four games. He said he was “ready when my name was called.”

After the season, Zimmer was fired and replaced by Kevin O’Connell, who will run the offense. The new defensive coordinator is Ed Donatell. Defensive backs coach Daronte Jones returns after having that role with the Vikings in Dantzler’s rookie season and then spending 2021 as LSU’s defensive coordinator.

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“Last year was kind of a rollercoaster season, but I’ve gained my confidence back,” Dantzler said. “New staff. Fresh start. So I’m just ready to show what I can do this year.”

Dantzler most likely will battle rookie Andrew Booth Jr., a second-round draft pick from Clemson, for the starting job. Booth has been limited in spring drills as he continues to recover from hernia surgery in March.

“When we drafted him, I was excited,” Dantzler said. “I was glad to add some firepower in the secondary. Booth, he’s a great player, and I’m going to love competing with him. “Whoever starts, it’s whatever helps the team win at the end of the day. … But it’s going to be a great battle.”

Peterson is in line to start at one cornerback spot, and more will be known about the other spot in training camp, when Booth presumably will be healthy. Dantzler has been running with the first team in spring drills.

“We just like what he sees, the things you know about him, his size, he plays the game well, he’s more experienced,” Donatall said. “So all good.”

In addition to adjusting to a new coaching staff, Danztler has a new number. After wearing 27 in his first two seasons with the Vikings, he has switched to his old Mississippi State number of 3.

Punter Jordan Berry wore 3 last year but agreed to give it up for modest compensation. Berry, who switched to 16, said his only requirement was that Dantzler has to pay for 10 to 12 members of his family to get Vikings No. 16 jerseys with “Berry” on the back. That should cost a few thousand bucks.

“I asked Jordan about it, and he’s a great guy and he gave 3 to me to bring that swagger back that I had in college,” Dantzler said.

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Perhaps having No. 3 back also could help with marketing “The Needle” nickname. Early in 2020, before Dantzler was drafted and before rules changed in 2021 allowing NFL defensive backs to wear single-digit numbers, Dantzler had custom T-shirts made featuring his initials and his nickname spelled “Needl3.” Sales of the shirts benefitted the child hunger charity No Kid Hungry, and former NFL cornerback Terrell Buckley, who was Dantzler’s college position coach, said he bought several.

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