With all the accolades being wrapped around Danielle Hunter, the expectations seem to be flying through the roof.
Last year, Hunter became the youngest Minnesota Vikings player in franchise history to lead the team sacks – he had 12½ – led all NFL defensive ends with that number, and was tied for third in the NFL overall in sacks.
The praise continues to come his way, some from teammates, some from his position coach and some from his head coach.
“He’s been gifted pretty good with his genes,” Mike Zimmer said. “I think sometimes the first or second year, you still try to feel your way a little bit, and third year you are a lot more comfortable. It is a big year for him, and I think, so far, he is progressing well.”
It’s a big year because so many people who witness him on a day-in, day-out basis see so much potential – some of that potential already realized and plenty more ahead.
“He’s coming along and he’s got a bright future in this league. We’re just going to do whatever we can to make sure that he’s successful and that our team is successful at the end of the day,” said fellow defensive end Brian Robison. “Obviously we all know he’s got God-gifted abilities with his range as far as the length of his arms and things like that, and if he just continues to use that he’s going to continue to get better.”
It took some time for Hunter to get to this point. In his rookie season, he was a raw pass rusher that didn’t really flourish until about midway through the season. A quarter of the way into the season, the Vikings were having him mimic Von Miller on the scout team in preparation for the Denver Broncos. Coaches saw more potential in him when he was in a two-point stance.
From there, he has continued to develop.
As a rookie, he finished with six sacks. Last year, it was 12½. This year, coaches and teammates alike hope to see his star rise even higher.
“I think the biggest thing is his confidence has gone through the roof. He knows he’s a good football player now and expects positive things to happen when he’s on the field,” defensive line coach Andre Patterson said. “I think that’s the biggest thing is that he’s not surprised when he makes a spectacular play. He expects for it to happen now. I think going through last season and seeing the things that he was able to do has given him that confidence level.”
Through two seasons, Hunter has 18½ sacks, the fifth-most in franchise history for a Viking in his first two seasons.
It started with the raw potential the Vikings saw in him to make him a third-round pick in 2015, and the progress continued with Patterson’s expert mentoring. He came to the Vikings with a common flaw among edge rushers from college – trying to beat offensive tackles wide on nearly every play.
“He’s fast and he’s long and in college his rush angle was more vertically up the field instead of getting downhill on the offensive lineman right now and closing the distance quickly. So now it gives him the advantage because he can beat the guy with speed, he can beat him with power, he can beat him with his length – all his options are available,” Patterson said. “When he ran up the field and had to turn downhill he had one shot to win because if he didn’t win the ball was going to be out. So that was constant, every day, working on him tightening that angle. But that’s not unique to him. Most of the college guys you get have that same problem.”
Hunter led the team in sacks last year, despite playing in less than 58 percent of the defensive snaps. That was about a 15 percent increase in the percentage of snaps he saw as a rookie.
This year, it appears the Vikings are elevating him to a starting spot on the left side of the line and moving Robison into more of a rotational role.
But if Hunter’s snaps increase to 80 percent, where Robison was last year, he may have to change his approach on a play-by-play basis.
Patterson doesn’t see it that way.
“To me, honestly, I think the only difference is being used to running out of the tunnel when they call his name. The number of snaps to me really won’t change that much because of the three guys we have,” he said, referring to Hunter, Robison and starting left end Everson Griffen. “We’ve got Everson and we’ve got B-Rob and then hopefully Stephen Weatherly continues to come. It’s not a deal to where I expect him to be a 65-plus-play-a-game guy. I’m hoping that we’re able to get those numbers to no more than 50 and then B-Rob is in the high 40s and Griff’s is in the 50s, Stephen Weatherly in the 30s. That’s what I’m hoping it’s going to be. If it turns out that way, that’s good for everybody.”
That could be a good balance between getting Hunter more action, but not so much that he gets worn down when the game is on the line.
The proof of Hunter’s potential will be in his production this year, but, for now, coaches and teammates seem to be anticipating big things in his third year.
Robison believes Hunter has the potential to be one of the best pass rushers the Vikings have had, saying he might be on track to be in the team’s Ring of Honor one day if he continues his ascent.
That’s high praise, indeed, but Robison has seen the progress first-hand.
“When he first came in here, he was kind of a raw talent. It was one of those deals where you knew he had a lot of potential, it was just going to be how quick he could grasp the game. But he is a smart kid. He takes notes every day,” Robison said. “He goes in there and you can definitely tell he is applying it on the field. He is understanding situations, understanding different formations that the offense is throwing at him, and he is being able to recognize those things faster, so I think it is going to be only good for our team that he can understand that stuff.”