EAGAN, Minn. — A call from Minnesota to Washington immediately led to a text to Minnesota, and Idaho was in the middle of it all. Oh yeah, there was a Cleveland in the mix, too.
The Vikings phoned Ezra Cleveland at his home in Washington to inform him of his selection with the 58th overall pick on Friday night. The redshirt junior left tackle immediately texted his former Boise State Broncos teammate Alexander Mattison, who was tabbed by the Vikings on Day 2 of the 2019 NFL Draft and following this year’s event from Minnesota.
“These past few days, I’ve been on pins and needles – super excited to figure out where [I was] going for my next journey,” Cleveland said during a video conference call Friday night. “Alex was the first person I texted when I got the call from the Vikings, and me and him celebrated together because this has been a dream of ours since he left here.
“I remember, I was one of his big reasons [why he was] teetering on either leaving or coming back,” Cleveland continued. “Being with him again is definitely a really cool experience.”
Mattison, wearing a bright orange sweatshirt from his alma mater, explained his joy for Cleveland and excitement to be teammates again.
“Oh, man, I was screaming pretty loud,” Mattison said. “The neighbors probably heard me, but I was jumping up, super excited. It was one of those moments where I was super proud of him just for this moment, and for him to be able to come to us was even [better]. We’re reunited, and it feels amazing.”
The two had been communicating for the past couple of days about the draft experience and possibility of Cleveland landing in the Twin Cities.
“He was really looking at the Vikings as a place where he really wanted to have an opportunity to be,” Mattison said. “I told him, for one, I knew he would fit in our system with the way he played, and if we had a chance to get him, I told him there’s a very good chance because I know how much he fits and the type of player he is.”
Cleveland, who was 11 pounds when he was born three weeks ahead of his due date, was only 5-foot-10 and 180 pounds as a freshman in high school. He’s now 6-foot-6 and between 312 and 315 pounds “depending on the day.”
Last season, Cleveland started all 13 games at left tackle for the Broncos and was named a First-Team All-Mountain West selection for the second consecutive year. He started all 40 games in three seasons with the Broncos.
From 2017-18, Cleveland helped Mattison rush for 2,501 yards and 29 scores.
Cleveland explained the strong connection with Mattison as “the running back-offensive line relationship that I feel like you should have in a team.”
They’d watch game film together in addition to team sessions so the tackle could relay what he was seeing from the defense and the running back could explain his perspective.
Time spent together involving football and outside of football made them so close.
Mattison described Cleveland as “extremely smart and extremely talented.”
Don’t forget “extremely athletic” as evidenced by Cleveland’s time of 4.93 seconds in the 40-yard dash at the 2020 NFL Scouting Combine, the third-fastest by an offensive lineman.
“If you look at his build, it speaks for itself. He lives up to it,” Mattison said. “I think it just comes together very well. Overall, he’s one of those guys that’s going to get after it. If I had one word to tag on him, it would probably be ‘monster.’ That man is extremely athletic.”
Vikings Director of College Scouting Jamaal Stephenson recalled scouting Cleveland in person in 2018 when Boise State played Fresno State.
“I went to a game out in Boise and watched him there along with Alexander Mattison, our fantastic running back,” Stephenson said. “I had a familiarity with him back then and was at the school in August of ’19 and watched him practice as he was preparing for his junior season.
“We’ve had scouts, our area guy, our regional guy went through there and got their eyes on him, and then in the postseason, we were able to face up with him at the combine,” Stephenson added. “We had a formal interview with him that went really well, which further emphasized the kind of guy he is and the fit for the Vikings. Our offensive line coaches also FaceTimed him after the combine and were very impressed with what they heard.”
In addition to the strong connection between Cleveland and Mattison, another Vikings player also came up in the discussion with Stephenson: right tackle Brian O’Neill, who was selected in the second round (62nd overall) out of Pittsburgh in 2018 and has started 26 of 30 games for the Vikings. O’Neill ran the 40-yard dash in 4.82 seconds.
Stephenson noted O’Neill’s growth and development through bulking up while maintaining his athleticism in an offensive system that frequently tasks blockers with using their mobility.
“[Cleveland] fits our parameters as far as the Viking fit,” Stephenson said. “He’s a tough guy who’s athletic, kind of like Brian O’Neill a couple of years ago, when we were talking about him, just how athletic he is. I mean, this guy ran a [4.93] at the combine. He’s mature. He’s tough. He’s a grinder. He loves football. So we think he’s a guy who’s going to come in and be able to help us right away.”
Stephenson said Cleveland’s athleticism was displayed in games and reinforced at the combine.
“You watch the tape, first of all, and you see with your own eyes what you think he could do if put in our type of offense,” Stephenson said. “But definitely, when you get to the combine and he blows it out like he did, it just kind of re-emphasizes what you saw on tape and you feel good about it.”
Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman noted the toughness that Cleveland demonstrated by playing through a turf toe injury in 2019.
“Our scouts have talked about how tough he was to get through that and some of the limitations he had during the week but lined up every Saturday to play,” Spielman said. “We watched ’18 tape on him when there was a pretty good running back behind him, as well.”
Spielman said Cleveland “fits everything” the Vikings are looking for from a schematic standpoint, although his position fit may still be up in the air.
“He’s long, he’s athletic, reminded us a lot of Brian O’Neill when we took him in almost the same spot in the second round,” Spielman said. “I talked to our coaches, and they see him as being a possible position flexibility guy, a left tackle, right tackle, even a potential guard if we need to, so we’ll figure that out.”
Cleveland and other rookies will be participating in minicamp virtually rather than coming to Twin Cities Orthopedics Performance Center. Although he’ll be engaging in distance learning, he’ll already have considerable familiarity.
“At Boise, we’re a big zone offense, as well. We do inside zone first, then power, then mid-zone,” Cleveland said. “A bunch of our plays are the zone scheme … and having this offseason where we don’t know what’s going to happen, I think it’s a huge benefit for me to be coming from a zone-type scheme and going right back into one.
“I absolutely can’t wait for this opportunity,” Cleveland said. “Sitting there, I really wanted the Vikings to draft me just because I know that it’s a fantastic organization, and I can’t wait to get in there, meet with my teammates and get everything rolling.”
EAGAN – The Vikings selected cornerback Cameron Dantzler with the 89th overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft on Friday night.
He was Minnesota’s second drafted corner this week, joining first-round selection Jeff Gladney.
Dantzler, a redshirt junior out of Mississippi State, measured 6-foot-2 and 188 pounds. Tabbed as the No. 9 cornerback in this year’s class by Pro Football Focus, he allowed a passer rating of just 57.0 last season, which ranked fourth among FBS cornerbacks.
He started 22 of 35 games from 2017-19 for the Bulldogs, including all nine that he played last fall. Dantzler led Mississippi State with 10 passes defensed in 2019. He recorded 40 tackles (31 solo) and two interceptions last season.
Seven of those tackles – and two disrupted passes – came against eventual National Champion LSU.
Dantzler’s play in the game caught the eye of Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman, who gave his immediate reaction after nabbing him:
“Very excited to add another corner to our mix … a big, tall, corner that is very athletic for his size. The game that stuck out to us the most was the LSU game,” Spielman said. “He has all the physical traits we’re looking for, and his length really helps him down the field, as well. Just adding depth, especially at a position of need, and we’re very excited to get Cameron on board.”
Former NFL safety-turned-analyst Louis Riddick also praised Dantzler’s performance against the Tigers. Riddick said during the ESPN/NFL Network coverage of the draft that Dantzler was the “only corner all year long” that stressed LSU receiver Ja’Marr Chase at the line of scrimmage.
“And why is that? It’s because Dantzler wasn’t afraid to attack him, and he got up on him, and he pressed him and he played him physical,” Riddick said. “He talked to him down the field – he wouldn’t back down from him.”
Dantzler held Chase to just 45 yards on five catches, his second-least-productive game of the season.
“This is a long, lanky corner that has a lot of physical range and can really be a problem for people as far as trying to get off the line of scrimmage. He’s a guy who’s not afraid of the physical side of the game, as well,” Riddick said. “He’s got the attitude, he’s got the confidence, and I need to reemphasize this – Ja’Marr Chase pretty much ran through whatever corner he went up against this year … this was the one that really got up and challenged him and said, ‘Uh-uh. You’re not doing that to me.’ ”
Shortly after being drafted, Dantzler met with Twin Cities media members via video conference and was asked about the key to containing Chase back in October.
Dantzler said former Bulldogs Head Coach Joe Moorhead tasked him with covering the receiver.
“Coach put me up to the challenge, and I accepted,” Dantzler said. “I just studied what he likes to do – some of his strengths, some of his weaknesses – throughout the week. … He doesn’t like when you’re really physical with him; he just tries to bully most of the time. So I just studied that and brought that into the game and held my own, and I thought I did a great job against him.”
As demonstrated against the Tigers, the 21-year-old may be thin but isn’t afraid to be physical.
Dantzler wore a black T-shirt emblazoned with his initials and “The Needle”; when asked about it, he explained the nickname given to him during his time in high school at St. Thomas Aquinas (Louisiana).
“I was always skinny, and when I hit you, it hurt,” he explained with a smile.
Spielman called Dantzler an “ideal fit” for Minnesota’s defense, and the cornerback told reporters he’s looking forward to working with Head Coach Mike Zimmer, who’s known across the league as a DB guru – albeit a tough one.
“Tough love is the best love, so I’m looking forward to being coached by Mike Zimmer,” Dantzler said. “I know he likes his cornerbacks tall, physical and aggressive, and I’m just ready to show the NFL what I can do.”
The Vikings are looking forward to that, too.
Spielman and Company got a chance to watch Dantzler at the NFL Scouting Combine, where his 40-yard dash time of 4.64 seconds raised some questions by critics.
He said the run “just didn’t go right” and that he later logged an unofficial time of 4.38.
“I’m know I’m faster than 4.6. I just want to show that at the next level, keep up with some of the top receivers in the league and run toe-to-toe with them,” Dantzler said.
Because of travel and public-gathering restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic, Spielman said that Vikings scouts “guesstimated” a little bit on the time from the third-party video.
“We were able to get a time that I know was faster, just us trying to do it with the circumstances we’re dealing with,” Spielman said. “It would have been great to go down there and time him in-person, but unfortunately that’s not where we’re at right now.
“But it gave us a pretty good indication,” he added.
Not only does Spielman believe Dantzler has the necessary speed, but he also appreciates his swagger.
It’s a mindset Dantzer and Gladney both share, and Spielman emphasized its importance – specifically in the secondary.
“You know, you’re going to win some and you’re going to lose some,” Spielman explained. “But if you have that swagger, if you do give up a play or something and come back and go compete again, I think that’s a special personality that we look for in corners.”
Dantzler, who has given up just one touchdown over the past two seasons and says he models his game after Richard Sherman and Jalen Ramsey, concurs.
“To play the position of cornerback, you’ve gotta be confident in what you do,” he said. “Just be confident and know your capabilities.”