This 10-part series focuses on the biggest questions facing the Vikings as they head into Mankato for their training camp festivities. Be sure to answer the first six questions HERE, HERE, HERE, HERE, HERE, and HERE.
CAMP QUESTION #7 – ‘Hunting’ for a starting spot?
In the weight room, Minnesota Vikings defensive end Danielle Hunter is a man amongst boys. He’s one of the team’s strongest, most explosive players. But on the field, Hunter is still learning the intricacies of the game. The second-year defensive end has all of the gifts to be a special defender in the NFL, and head coach Mike Zimmer knows his ‘project’ is close to a breakthrough.
“One of the big things that I’ve been talking to him all the time is being low and coming off the ball,” Zimmer said, per ESPN’s Ben Goessling. “His first step, he’s got a great first step and he’s got to make sure he threatens the offensive line with that and being an athlete, really.”
Someone who’s already been there, done that is Hunter’s teammate, Brian Robison. Since taking over as the starting left defensive end in 2011, he’s never played less than 900 snaps in a season. And in that time, he’s accumulated 35 sacks, averaging seven sacks per season. To call Robison a vital part of the defense would be an understatement; he’s been a cog through multiple head coaching and scheme changes.
But in Hunter, the Vikings have what Goessling calls the NFL’s “next pass-rushing terror.” Despite playing 505 less snaps than Robison last season, Hunter outperformed his senior teammate, finishing the year with six sacks to Robison’s five. Questions of his inexperience and one-dimensional pass rush evaporated as soon as Hunter hit the field — he was the real deal.
Entering his second season, the 6’5″, 252-pound Hunter is doing all he can to earn more playing time. According to Chris Tomasson of the Pioneer Press, Hunter put on seven pounds of muscle this offseason in preparation of an even bigger role. His teammates, including Phil Loadholt, recognize Hunter’s hard work.[quote_box_center]“He’s really quick off the ball,” Loadholt said. “He’s always quick, but it seems like he’s got a little more burst to him. Stronger. He’s a good player.”[/quote_box_center]
Even Everson Griffen, Minnesota’s premiere defensive end, is envious of Hunter’s raw abilities. “I wished I was that coachable when I was young, he said. “The big thing for him is to use what God gave him — his speed, his length, his bend — and he’ll be unstoppable.”
On the far side of the line, Robison isn’t quite ready to give up his starting spot. The 33-year-old will suit up for his 10th season in 2016, with the goal of helping the team win its first Super Bowl. He flashed at times in 2015, proving he has an important role to play for the Vikings.
Time is running out for veteran, though, as Hunter continues to improve. In Minnesota’s final four games last season, the rookie racked up 3.5 sacks. As he develops into his freakish frame and masters the minute details required from a pass rusher, he’ll quickly overtake Robison.
The question is, how soon will that be?