by Drew Mahowald | December 13, 2016 8:00 am
Vikings Barroom Assistant Editor Drew Mahowald examines the quick start to the NFL career of Minnesota edge-rusher Danielle Hunter.
Prior to the 2015 NFL Draft, the “raw talent” narrative surrounding current Minnesota Vikings defensive end Danielle Hunter was agreed upon by virtually every draft expert.
I urge you to make your way into Twitter’s Advanced Search feature and search for all tweets that contain the phrases “Danielle Hunter” and “raw” prior to April 30, 2015 — you’ll see what I mean.
Nobody ever doubted his athleticism. He clocked a 4.57 40-yard dash at the 2015 NFL Combine, which was tops among defensive ends in his class. On top of that, Hunter’s 34 1/4″ arms combined with his 6’5″, 260-pound frame made him arguably the best combination of size and athleticism in the entire draft.
I mean, just look at him — he’s a replica of the unrealistically athletic player you created on Madden:
But the concern with Hunter was that he was extremely raw.
Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller said he has “hopes he’s given time to develop.”
Finalizing Danielle Hunter scouting report this morning. Bit of a boom-or-bust player. Hope he's given time to develop.
— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) March 4, 2015
NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein commented that “the concern with Hunter is that his pass-rush instincts are marginal and he hasn’t learned to use his physical advantages to rush the quarterback more consistently.”
This article’s sole purpose isn’t to bash those who were wrong about Hunter because, again, this was pretty much the general consensus at the time. But instead, to simply show just how well Hunter has performed during his first two seasons and the elite company he is in.
Let’s get the basic statistics out of the way — 27 career games, 16.5 sacks, 50 total tackles, one fumble recovery returned for a touchdown and one safety. Not bad at all — he’s one of just 57 players to ever record 16.5 sacks in their first 27 games.
The most remarkable thing about Hunter’s lightning fast start is his age.
Hunter just turned 22 roughly six weeks ago on October 29, and he is terrorizing opposing offensive lines on a weekly basis. His 10.5-sack (and counting) season as a 22-year-old already ranks pretty highly all-time, according to Pro-Football-Reference.
And the man still has three games remaining this season.
Nope, your eyes are not deceiving you. If he continues on his current 2016 season pace, Hunter will finish with 13 sacks, which would tie him with Dwight Freeney for fifth-most sacks in a season at 22 or younger. It would also put him ahead of some elite company, as shown by the chart.
Hunter doesn’t just do damage as a pass-rusher, either. In fact, he might be better as a run defender — which is a scary thought considering he is becoming an elite pass-rusher. Hunter’s hulk-like arms allow him to shed blocks and close gaps easier than most linemen. And after nearly two years of tutelage from Mike Zimmer and Minnesota’s defensive coaching staff, the former LSU Tiger has produced on the field. Pro Football Focus, for example, has ranked Hunter as the 12th-best edge-rusher against the run in the NFL through the first 13 games of the season.
Simply, he is one of the rare players in the league that can move offensive linemen where he wants them to go, instead of the other way around — the way it’s supposed to be.
This play in Minnesota’s Week 2 win over the Green Bay Packers shows it.
Hunter gets an excellent push at the point of attack to get the offensive tackle on his heels. From there, he extends his long arms to set the edge and force wide receiver Randall Cobb back inside, where Hunter is waiting to make the stop.
The sheer strength Hunter possesses allows him to literally toss 300-pound men to the side like a rag doll — and that’s not even hyperbole. He has accomplished this on multiple occasions throughout the season en route to sacks.
Oh, and he’s not just strong; Hunter possesses the quickness and burst off the line to beat you with a speed-rush or even a little swim move. Not bad for a “raw” prospect who will need “a couple of years” to develop.
How exactly are teams supposed to stop a man who is built more like the Incredible Hulk than an actual human being? The stuff he pulls off every week looks like it came from a polished veteran, not some 22-year-old kid who was repeatedly labeled “raw” just 18 months ago.
The only thing holding back Hunter at this point is the depth chart. That’s right — Hunter isn’t even “technically” an NFL starter yet. His role along Minnesota’s front seven calls for him on a rotational basis with his primary usage coming on obvious passing downs. In these instances, Hunter will rotate into an edge-rushing position while starting defensive end Brian Robison moves inside.
As a result, Hunter ranks third among defensive ends in Minnesota with 495 total snaps played this season, behind Robison’s 688 and Everson Griffen’s 733.
So, just how good is Danielle Hunter? Well, he is fifth in the NFL with 10.5 sacks without even playing starter-level snaps. And when he is in the game, he fills his gaps as a run defender about as efficiently as anyone in the NFL.
Oh, and in case this wasn’t clear — he turned 22 years old just six weeks ago.
It won’t be much longer before Hunter seizes a starting role and begins consistently posting a high number of snaps. When this day does come, the prospect once regarded as “raw” will quickly establish himself as one of the most dominant edge-rushers in all of professional football.
For more Minnesota Vikings news and jargon, follow @DrewMahowald and @VikingsBarroom on Twitter.
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