Hunter, the Vikings’ third-round draft choice and youngest player on the team, didn’t start on Sunday but he did play the second-most snaps (48) of his rookie season as the coaching staff limited the workload of starter Everson Griffen. Turns out that Hunter got 17 more snaps than Griffen.
“We wanted to use Everson more in passing situations today if we could, so Hunter was getting a lot more reps,” coach Mike Zimmer said.
Hunter played 50 snaps against the Kansas City Chiefs when Griffen was a late scratch because of illness, but his performance on Sunday was more standout than fill-in.
“He’s just one of those guys that’s always willing to learn. He’s got such a bright future in this league, but I think the one thing that sets him apart is that for a rookie he really listens,” said Brian Robison, who was usually on the opposite side of the defensive line from Hunter on Sunday. “He’s really one of those guys that wants to get better every single day, puts in a lot of film work. I think you see it on tape. He’s one of those guys that kind of came in a little hesitant and trying to think things through. Now he’s just going and making plays for us.”
Robison had one sack against the Chicago Bears, but he nearly had three of them. Instead, some of his initial pressure filtered sacks to others, including the team-leading 1½ sacks by Hunter.
That elevated Hunter to five sacks on the season, the most among all rookies in the NFL this year, despite making only one start (against Kansas City).
“Being this young, I just look at the older guys all the time – Griff, B-Rob, Linval (Joseph) and Sharrif (Floyd),” Hunter said. “Every time we’re at practice and they’re rushing or something, I look at them. I take advantage of my young age of just learning as much as I can from them and try to bring it on the field.”
He has. With 2014 draft pick Scott Crichton now on injured reserve and reserve defensive end Justin Trattou on and off the waiver wire, Hunter has become an important and oft-used rotational player for Robison and Griffen.
“It’s very valuable,” Robison said. “That’s the thing about this league is it’s all about the team that can really have the most depth and I feel like he brings that to us.”
The Vikings have been getting a lot of contributions from their rookie class. Mostly because of injuries, the team started six rookies – tackle T.J. Clemmings, receiver Stefon Diggs, linebackers Eric Kendricks and Edmond Robinson, cornerback Trae Waynes and safety Anthony Harris – against the Arizona Cardinals. That was tied for the most rookies starting a game in franchise history.
Hunter has just one start this season, but his skill set is such that more starts are likely in his future in the coming years. He is the youngest player on the team, turning 21 on Oct. 29, but his rapid improvement has him making serious contributions.
“Coach Zim and Coach (Andre Patterson), they’re hard on me to use my speed, just come off the ball and using my hands,” Hunter said. “They’re always stressing to me to do things like that.”
It would appear those stress points are relieving the stress of injuries, and Hunter’s rookie season is proving to be a good one.