Minnesota Vikings rookie defensive end Danielle Hunter has been seeing an increased role the past few weeks as he continues to improve his play. He has received 20-plus snaps in each of the team’s last three games as he comes in to either give Everson Griffen some rest or to give the defense another pass rusher in passing situations.
When the Vikings drafted Hunter in the third round, he was considered to have the potential to be a great pass rusher, but he was also considered a project. He is starting to show his ability on a more regular basis throughout games and head coach Mike Zimmer is happy with what he has seen.
“I think he’s understanding more about how to rush,” he said of Hunter. “He’s getting more time in the running game as well. I think maybe using his athletic ability, he’s starting to understand how to use it more as opposed to just being an athlete. Now he’s starting to become a football player.”
In the Vikings’ last game against the Oakland Raiders, Hunter only recorded one tackle but was able to do things on defense that helped lead to his teammates making big plays.
One example of that is when he was able to assist Linval Joseph getting a sack in the third quarter. Hunter bull rushed the Raiders left tackle and was able to get to the quarterback Derek Carr. Carr was able to avoid Hunter, but stumbled in doing so and that gave Joseph enough time to get there and bring Carr to the ground.
It can get frustrating for a defensive end to be close to recording sacks on multiple occasions without getting there, but as long as a winning play is made for the Vikings, Hunter seems to be happy.
“Rushing the quarterback you get to affect the quarterback,” he said. “Coming up with a pick like (Terence) Newman and affecting his throws like that. So you just can’t get frustrated and keep rushing.”
The rookie has made big strides from where he was at the beginning of the season. He had the opportunity to play in the Vikings in a Week 1 game against the San Francisco 49ers but was then listed as inactive for the following two games. And if it were not for an injury to Justin Trattou he might still be listed as inactive on Sundays.
But he has been able to take full advantage of the opportunity he has been given and credits his successful play to not thinking as much as he used to.
“Pass rushing is all about repetition,” Hunter said. “Can’t think about it too much. If you try to think about it that’s what slows you down and that’s what happening with me in the past, so I just don’t think about it too much and go off reaction.”
Not only have the Vikings been able to take advantage of Hunter’s natural athletic ability along the defensive line, but also by having him line up in a two-point stance. He is usually lined up this way on third downs and he said he is comfortable playing that way.
A defensive end standing straight up is not something you typically see in a 4-3 defense and it almost happened by accident.
“Really it wasn’t anything earth-shattering,” Zimmer said. “I think we were playing Denver and he was DeMarcus Ware that week. He was standing up and he looked to me like he got off the ball better, so I said let’s look at him some doing that.”
Not every player has the ability to move all around the defense the way Hunter does and it just goes to show the importance of his athletic ability. It is a big reason why the Vikings decided to go with him in the first place and indicates that big things could be on the horizon for him.