Former Third-Round Pick Emerging as an Elite Pass-Rusher for Vikings

Image courtesy of Vikings.com.

The Minnesota Vikings have always been a team that values great pass-rushing talent. Whether it comes from the interior defensive line, off the edge, a linebacker or even from somewhere in the secondary; Minnesota has consistently placed an emphasis on pressuring opposing quarterbacks.

So, when the Vikings parted ways with two of their top sackers in franchise history following the 2013 NFL season in defensive end Jared Allen and defensive tackle Kevin Williams, it should not have come as a shock that the team was immediately interested in reloading with premiere talent and high-ceiling players.

This reboot included handing defensive end Everson Griffen a lucrative 5-year contract extension, signing nose tackle Linval Joseph away from the New York Giants, adding veteran defensive tackle Tom Johnson, selecting UCLA linebacker Anthony Barr and Oregon State defensive end Scott Crichton during the 2014 NFL draft as well as bringing in UCLA linebacker Eric Kendricks, LSU defensive end Danielle Hunter and Newberry linebacker Edmond Robinson during the 2015 NFL draft.

With exception to the selection of Crichton during the third round of the 2014 draft, all of these moves have played an enormous role in the Vikings becoming one of the most dangerous pass-rushing defenses in the NFL. While players like Griffen, Joseph and Barr have garnered more attention for their successes, no player has sacked quarterbacks with more regularity during the 2016 season than Hunter — a second-year talent who was universally considered to be “raw” and “a few years away” coming out of Louisiana State University.

Entering Week 15, Hunter has totaled a team-leading 10.5 sacks despite having yet to start a game this season and having been on the field for just 495 snaps. By comparison, starting defensive ends Everson Griffen (eight sacks) and Brian Robison (seven sacks) have played 733 and 688 defensive snaps, respectively.

In addition to leading the way for the Vikings in quarterback takedowns, Hunter’s 10.5 sacks rank sixth in professional football behind Denver’s Von Miller (13.5), Atlanta’s Vic Beasley (13.5), Seattle’s Cliff Avril (11.5), Washington’s Ryan Kerrigan (11.0) and Oakland’s Khalil Mack (11.0). Hunter finds himself within this group of elite pass-rushing weapons despite a snap count that is not even in the same stratosphere as any of them with exception to Beasley (547 snaps), as each remaining member of this sextet has totaled at least 650 snaps with Mack (786 snaps), Miller (759 snaps) and Avril (742 snaps) well over 700 apiece.

Simply put, what Hunter has produced over the course of nearly two complete seasons is borderline historic. As shown in the table below, his 16.5 sacks through just 27 games has him competitively listed amongst some of the greatest sack artists in NFL history — and also way beyond the pace of Minnesota career sack leaders John Randle (9.0) and Chris Doleman (0.5).

Ready or Not: 27-Game Sack Leaders

RankPositionNameTeamRound SelectedFirst 27 GamesCareer
1LBAldon SmithSan FranciscoFirst30.547.5
2TLBShawne MerrimanSan DiegoFirst27.045.5
2TDEReggie WhitePhiladelphiaFirst27.0198.0
4LBVon MillerDenverFirst26.573.5
5LBDerrick ThomasKansas CityFirst25.0126.5
6DEDwight FreeneyIndianapolisFirst23.0122.5
7TLBClay MatthewsGreen BayFirst21.571.5
7TDEJevon KearseTennesseeFirst21.574.0
7TDEAnthony SmithOakland/Los AngelesFirst21.557.5
10TDE/LBLeslie O'NealSan DiegoFirst20.5132.5
10TLBTerrell SuggsBaltimoreFirst20.5114.5
12DEJJ WattHoustonFirst20.076.0
13TDECameron WakeMiamiUndrafted19.579.5
13TDE/LBBrian OrakpoWashingtonFirst19.557.0
13TDTKeith MillardMinnesotaFirst19.558.0
13TDEJohn AbrahamN.Y. JetsFirst19.5133.5
13TDE/LBElvis DumervilDenverFourth19.597.0
18TLBCornelius BennettIndianapolisFirst18.571.5
18TDE/LBCharles HaleySan FranciscoFourth18.5100.5
20TDEJulius PeppersCarolinaFirst18.0142.5
20TDEKabeer Gbaja-BiamilaGreen BayFifth18.074.5
22TDTKevin WilliamsMinnesotaFirst17.563.0
22TDESimeon RiceArizonaFirst17.5122.0
24TLBLawrence TaylorN.Y. GiantsFirst17.0142.0
24TDEJared AllenKansas CityFourth17.0136.0
26TDE/LBChandler JonesNew EnglandFirst16.544.0
26TDEDanielle HunterMinnesotaThird16.516.5
26TDEBruce SmithBuffaloFirst16.5200.0
29DTAaron DonaldSt. Louis/Los AngelesFirst16.027.0
30TDEZiggy AnsahDetroitFirst15.530.0
30TDEDexter ManleyWashingtonFifth15.5103.5
30TLBLaMarr WoodleyPittsburghSecond15.558.0
33TLBTim HarrisGreen BayFourth15.081.0
33TDERichard DentChicagoEighth15.0137.5
33TDECarlos DunlapCincinnatiSecond15.056.0
36TLBJustin HoustonKansas CityThird14.560.5
36TLBRyan KerriganWashingtonFirst14.558.5
38TDTBill PickelOakland/Los AngelesSecond14.056.0
38TLBDeMarcus WareDallasFirst14.0138.5
38TDEWill SmithNew OrleansFirst14.067.5
41TDE/LBVic BeasleyAtlantaFirst13.517.5
41TDERobert QuinnSt. Louis/Los AngelesFirst13.554.0
43TDERobert MathisIndianapolisFifth13.0121.0
43TDETrent ColePhiladelphiaFifth13.089.5
43TLBTamba HaliKansas CityFirst13.089.5
43TDTNdamukong SuhDetroitFirst13.047.0
43TDEJason TaylorMiamiThird13.0139.5
48DE/DTJustin SmithCincinnatiFirst12.587.0
49LBAndre TippettNew EnglandSecond12.0100.0
50LB/DEWhitney MercilusHoustonFirst11.535.5
51TDE/LBKhalil MackOaklandFirst11.030.0
51TDEOlivier VernonMiamiThird11.037.0
51TLBBryce PaupGreen BaySixth11.075.0
54DEMario WilliamsHoustonFirst10.597.5
55TDE/LBBruce IrvinSeattleFirst10.027.0
55TLBJoey PorterPittsburghThird10.098.0
55TLBShaun PhillipsSan DiegoFourth10.081.5
58TLB/DEWillie McGinestNew EnglandFirst9.586.0
58TDECliff AvrilDetroitThird9.571.5
58TDTGeno AtkinsCincinnatiFourth9.549.5
61TLB/DEConnor BarwinHoustonSecond9.049.5
61TDTWarren SappTampa BayFirst9.096.5
61TDECharles JohnsonCarolinaThird9.067.5
61TDTMarcell DareusBuffaloFirst9.034.0
61TDT/DEJohn RandleMinnesotaUndrafted9.0137.5
66TDEMichael StrahanN.Y. GiantsSecond8.5141.5
66TDTFletcher CoxPhiladelphiaFirst8.527.5
66TLB/DEJunior GaletteNew OrleansUndrafted8.531.5
69TLBAhmad BrooksCincinnati/San FranciscoThird8.052.5
69TDEJustin TuckN.Y. GiantsThird8.066.5
69TDEJim JeffcoatDallasFirst8.0102.5
72TDE/DTMike DanielsGreen BayFourth7.521.0
72TDE/LBJadeveon ClowneyHoustonFirst7.58.5
72TLBAnthony BarrMinnesotaFirst7.59.5
72TLBChad BrownPittsburghSecond7.579.0
72TLBPernell McPheeBaltimoreFifth7.525.0
77TDTGerald McCoyTampa BayFirst7.042.0
77TDEChris LongSt. Louis/Los AngelesFirst7.057.5
77TDECameron JordanNew OrleansFirst7.044.5
77TLBKevin GreeneSt. Louis/Los AngelesFifth7.0160.0
77TDEChris ClemonsWashingtonUndrafted7.069.0
77TDT/DESheldon RichardsonN.Y. JetsFirst7.018.0
83TLBJunior SeauSan DiegoFirst6.056.5
83TLB/DEJason BabinHoustonFirst6.064.5
83TDEGreg HardyCarolinaSixth6.040.0
86DE/DTBrian RobisonMinnesotaFourth5.555.5
87DEBertrand BerryIndianapolisThird5.065.0
88TDTJurrell CaseyTennesseeThird4.531.0
88TLB/DEDee FordKansas CityFirst4.515.5
88TDELance JohnstoneOaklandSecond4.572.0
88TLB/DEBrandon GrahamPhiladelphiaFirst4.528.5
92TDE/DTCalais CampbellArizonaSecond4.052.5
92TLBJames HarrisonPittsburghUndrafted4.081.5
92TDEEverson GriffenMinnesotaFourth4.048.0
95CBRonde BarberTampa BayThird3.028.0
96TSAdrian WilsonArizonaThird2.025.5
96TDEJerry HughesIndianapolisFirst2.035.0
96TSHarrison SmithMinnesotaFirst2.07.5
99SBrian DawkinsPhiladelphiaSecond1.026.0
100LB/DEChris DolemanMinnesotaFirst0.5150.5

With three games still to play — and a home matchup with the Indianapolis Colts, who have allowed the second-most quarterback sacks this season (40), on the horizon — Hunter has an outside chance of totaling the most sacks in Vikings history through two complete NFL seasons.

Vikings: Most Sacks Through First Two Years

RankPositionNameSacks
1DTKevin Williams22.0
2DTKeith Millard21.5
3DEDanielle Hunter16.5
4DEAl Noga11.5
5DT/DEJohn Randle10.5

What truly makes his success thus far so special is the fact that he is doing it not only as a rotational player but at an extremely young age, relative to NFL standards. Hunter, who turned 22 years old on October 29th, is well ahead of the pace of the two players ahead of him in the previous table, as Williams and defensive tackle Keith Millard both began their professional careers at the age of 23. Relative to players his age throughout Vikings franchise history, however, Hunter is already well ahead of the curve.

Vikings: Most Sacks Through Age 22 Season

RankPositionNameSacks
1DEDanielle Hunter16.5
2DERay Edward8.0
3LBDwayne Rudd7.0
4DEKenechi Udeze6.0
5LBAnthony Barr4.0

With more than double the sacks of former Vikings defensive end Ray Edwards, the third-round pick from LSU has proven his ability to bring opposing quarterbacks to the ground is well beyond comparison to former Vikings within his age group. Hunter is, in fact, yielding generational results, as his current career total of 16.5 sacks ranks fifth all-time among players having finished their age-22 season.

NFL: Most Sacks Through Age 22 Season

RankPositionNameTeamSacks
1LBShawne MerrimanSan Diego27.0
2LBTerrell SuggsBaltimore22.5
3DEJason Pierre-PaulN.Y. Giants21.0
4DEMario WilliamsHouston18.5
5DEDanielle HunterMinnesota16.5
6DERobert QuinnSt. Louis/Los Angeles15.5
7DE/DTKeith HamiltonN.Y. Giants15.0
8TDECarlos DunlapCincinnati14.0
8TLBAldon SmithSan Francisco14.0
10TDE/DTShane DronettDenver13.5
10TDE/DTDarrell RussellOakland13.5
10TDTDan WilkinsonCincinnati13.5

Assuming Hunter can remain healthy for Minnesota’s three remaining matchups against the Colts, Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears, it’s not farfetched for him to climb all the way to the No. 2 spot on the above list.

As previously mentioned, Indianapolis has had plenty of issues keeping quarterbacks Andrew Luck and Scott Tolzien upright, and while Green Bay (26 sacks allowed) and Chicago (24 sacks allowed) have been considerably better at holding opposing defenses in check, Hunter is in the midst of a torrid pace that has seen him total at least 1.0 sacks in four of the past five matchups and a minimum of half a sack in all five.

As a result, it remains entirely possible that a player selected No. 88 overall, widely considered to be a long-term project and one who managed to record only 4.5 sacks through a 34-game collegiate career in the SEC could rival the ridiculous 27-sack mark former edge-rusher Shawne Merriman reached during his first two seasons with the San Diego Chargers.

That doesn’t seem too bad considering that Hunter was not only a Day 2 draft selection but also passed over in favor of 14 other pass-rushing weapons, 13 edge-rushers and six (seven counting Beasley) defensive ends during the 2015 NFL draft. Through 29 potential games played, however, Hunter has turned in the second-most sacks in his draft class, falling just one short of the class-leading Beasley.

2015 NFL Draft: Sack Totals

PositionNameTeamRoundPick NumberSack Total
DE/LBVic BeasleyAtlanta1817.5
DEDanielle HunterMinnesota38816.5
DEPreston SmithWashington23812.0
LBMarkus GoldenArizona25811.0
DEFrank ClarkSeattle26310.5
LBShane RayDenver12310.0
DTLeonard WilliamsN.Y. Jets1610
LBLorenzo MauldinN.Y. Jets3826.5
LBBud DupreePittsburgh1226.0
LBHau'oli KikahaNew Orleans2444.0
LBNate OrchardCleveland2513.0
DEDante Fowler Jr.Jacksonville132.5
LBEli HaroldSan Francisco3791.0
DEOwamagbe OdighizuwaN.Y. Giants3740
DERandy GregoryDallas2600

To add even further perspective to how dominant Hunter has been during his young professional career, his 16.5 sacks are surpassed by only two players from the 2014 draft class — Mack (30.0) and Los Angeles’ Aaron Donald (27.0) — and three players from the 2013 draft class — Detroit’s Ezekiel Ansah (30.0), Carolina’s Kawann Short (21.0) and New York’s Sheldon Richardson (18.0) — despite playing one or two fewer seasons, respectively. In fact, Hunter would rank in the top 20 of the 2012 (13th), 2011 (17th) and 2010 (17th) classes as well, which is absolutely absurd given the number of seasons, games and snaps he has played in comparison.

Each of these numbers shedding light on Hunter’s generational ability and historic pace all lead to one question: How is he doing it? Naturally, there isn’t a simple answer, as a number of different factors have converged to produce the sack artist-in-the-making football fans are watching develop before their eyes.

Coming out of Morton Ranch high school (Katy, Texas), he was given a four-star recruiting grade as the No. 34-ranked defensive end in the country. He received offers from a number of high-profile universities including Nebraska, Michigan State, Texas A&M and Oklahoma, but ultimately decided to attend LSU, which at the time was led by head coach Les Miles.

Hunter’s collegiate career, as previously noted, was rather underwhelming. Throughout the duration of his 34 games played and two complete seasons as a starter, Hunter recorded an uninspiring total 4.5 sacks and a somewhat impressive total of 21 tackles for loss. Despite statistical totals that hardly tread water on the best edge-rushers in the country, he elected to enter the 2015 draft — a move which was widely considered to be a mistake given that he still had a year left of eligibility as well as the physical and athletic tools to improve his draft stock with a strong senior season.

His statistical figures may have been similar to that of a Day 3-pick, but Hunter’s performance at the NFL Combine solidified his status a player with limitless potential given the right coaching.

It was this combination of world-class athleticism and his Greek god-like physique that caught the attention of Rick Spielman and Mike Zimmer. The incorporation of his relentless motor and coachable personality forced the Vikings to select an edge-rusher during the third round for a second consecutive year despite needing to add depth both along the offensive line and at running back.

While the 2016 season has brought into focus Minnesota’s lack of depth at the pair of aforementioned positions, it is hard to imagine that Spielman or Zimmer would do anything differently given a mulligan, as the former Day 2 pick out of LSU has quickly emerged as talent with the potential to become one of the league’s most dynamic edge-rushers and an absolute force within the Vikings defense for years to come.

Hunter’s athletic and physical gifts are clear on tape, as he consistently combines explosiveness, lateral agility, strength, length and tenacity to reach opposing quarterbacks. What may be less obvious, however, is how quickly he has grown from a technical standpoint since his LSU days.

As one may have assumed from his pedestrian college statistics, Hunter’s collegiate highlight reel was not very extensive. Among these highlights, however, was a sack of former Mississippi State and current Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott (video above).

This particular snap represents a microcosm of Hunter’s collegiate career. While he was ultimately able to record a sack on the play, he failed to beat left tackle Blaine Clausell (No. 75) — who went undrafted in 2015 and is a current member of the Carolina Panthers practice squad — off the line of scrimmage and was only able to reach Prescott as a result of a relentless motor and the Mississippi State quarterback holding the ball too long in the pocket.

Essentially every highlight from his time at LSU was a result of similar reasoning; he rarely flashed an ability to combine his outstanding motor, explosive burst, impressive strength, world-class athleticism and ridiculous length with textbook edge-rushing technique or any semblance of pass-rushing creativity.

Since Zimmer, defensive coordinator George Edwards and defensive line coach Andre Patterson got their hands on him, however, Hunter has improved both dramatically and at a consistent rate throughout his nearly two-year professional career.

“[Hunter] really is coachable,” Zimmer said. “Every day he tries to learn the best he can. He takes in everything. The big thing with him, sometimes he becomes robotic. I think that’s what has kind of allowed him to progress. A year ago he was kind of robotic in wanting to try to take in everything. You have to have a starting point. For him, it’s getting off the ball and staying low.

“Once that happens, then he can just kind of let his athletic ability take over. When you’re thinking a lot and you’re a young guy, you tend to slow down, especially early in the down.”

He is quicker off the snap, uses his hands more effectively, converts speed to power more fluidly, takes better angles to the backfield, contorts his body around pass-protectors more naturally, and, above all, better employs his truly unparalleled edge-rushing traits.

While there have been countless examples of this progression amid both the 2015 and 2016 seasons, Hunter’s sack of Carolina’s Cam Newton in the end zone during Week 3 may be the single-best example of his dramatic improvement.

This play — especially given Carolina’s field position and Minnesota’s 10-point deficit on the scoreboard — is all-around ridiculous. Hunter, who is lined up in Griffen’s typical right defensive position with his hand in the dirt, fights through two separate offensive linemen in a matter of seconds and explodes directly into the blind-side of an unexpecting Newton.

What makes this play truly special, however, is the number of absolutely absurd and beyond exceptional maneuvers Hunter employs in order to record — what would prove to be — a game-altering safety.

  1. Hunter beats LT Michael Oher off the snap
  2. Hunter’s initial punch connects low and inside the pads of Oher, lifting him off the ground and disallowing him to establish proper balance or set an anchor with his left foot
  3. Hunter seizes complete control of Oher’s unbalanced weight distribution, upending the 6-foot-4, 315-pound offensive tackle
  4. Hunter slams Oher into the ground and sets his eyes on the prize
  5. Hunter casually hurdles Oher and continues his pursuit of Newton
  6. Hunter is engaged by LG Andrew Norwall
  7. Hunter bends away from Norwall’s punch, re-establishing balance with his right foot to continue the best possible route to Newton
  8. Hunter slams into the back of the Newton and effortlessly slams the 245-pound quarterback into the ground for a safety

In just under four seconds, Hunter destroyed a 315-pound offensive tackle, hurdled him, shook off a 315-pound offensive guard and brought down a 245-pound quarterback in the end zone for a safety — it truly does not get much more special than that relative to individual effort on a single play.

More impressively, however, is the fact that Hunter has been making plays like this during key moments all season long, as displayed within the following tables and video playlist documenting each of his 10.5 sacks throughout the 2016 campaign:

Hunting: Sacks by Down

Year1st2nd3rd4th
20150330
20162441
Total2771

Hunting: Sacks by Quarter

Year1st2nd3rd4th
20152140
20162208
Total4348

Sack Artists are typically defined as standout pass-rushers that bring down quarterbacks consistently and effortlessly, record high sack totals every season and make plays during key moments or in spite of an offense game-planning to stop them. Players such as Von Miller (Denver), JJ Watt (Houston), Dwight Freeney (Indianapolis/San Diego/Arizona), Julius Peppers (Carolina/Chicago/Green Bay) and Jared Allen (Kansas City/Minnesota/Chicago/Carolina) are just a few of the greatest recent embodiments of this term.

Danielle Hunter — a 22-year-old defensive end possessing unparalleled athleticism, the physical stature of a Greek god, a relentless motor, a coachable work ethic, a Vikings defensive staff with years of experience and a long list of success stories, a defensive scheme that employs him perfectly in a number of different ways as well as a handful of veteran teammates to mentor him — is well on his way to becoming one of the most feared sack artists the National Football League has to offer.

“He’s got unlimited potential to work with. Danielle is a hard worker, he’s smart and he’s a great athlete with a bunch of God-given attributes,” Mike Zimmer said

“If you’ve got those things and you’re willing to work and listen … you can go a long way.”

Statistics courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference; Snap Counts courtesy of Pro Football Focus; Film Clips courtesy of NFL Game Pass; NFL Combine numbers courtesy of Mockdraftable; Sacks courtesy of Danielle Hunter.