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Consistency is an art form for Vikings' Danielle Hunter

The Vikings' Pro Bowl pass rusher is so good year to year that we take it for granted -- and that's how he likes it.

EAGAN — When a player is as big and strong as Danielle Hunter, it’s hard to get much credit for anything else that causes his success on the football field. Every time you ask someone to explain Hunter’s excellence, the conversation always starts with: “You’ve seen him, right?”

Hunter’s production has also been so consistent that it’s boring.

If the NFL’s leader in sacks entering Week 7 ends up with 10-plus again this year, that will make five out of six full seasons that he’s racked up more than 10 sacks since 2016 (and 6.0 sacks in seven games in 2021). The one sub-10 sack season was in 2017 when he still ranked in the top 15 in QB pressures by PFF and played 873 snaps on the No. 1 defense in the NFL.

This year the Vikings’ defense has been known for its aggressive approach, yet the heat on opposing QBs has still often been a one-man show. Hunter’s 8.0 sacks are five more than the next best Viking (Harrison Smith) and his 21 pressures are seven above No. 2 on the team (DJ Wonnum). He leads the club in run stops too. He ranked second in that category last year and third in 2019.

Yep, that all sounds like Danielle. Yawn.

On its face consistency is uninteresting. Like if a jazz musician only played all the right notes or an artist only ever painted within the lines. But in the NFL consistency is the hardest part. There are plenty of players who have had a 10-sack season. The best pass rusher of all time Reggie White had 12 of them, for example. And the only way to put together that type of production year after year is to do the same things day after day.

“[Hunter] is consistent in his approach and who he is as a person,” linebacker Jordan Hicks said. “What he brings day in and day out. You know you’re getting somebody who’s going 100 percent at all times, he’s methodical about how he approaches the game.”

Hunter says he doesn’t have a secret to his consistency, he sees it as part of the expectation of his role.

“The biggest thing is, this is my job,” Hunter said. “This is what I’m supposed to do. It’s only human nature that if you do something over and over again you are going to get better at it. I pride myself in doing my job and my team relies on me so I have to do it consistently.”

Danielle Hunter

There’s nothing dramatic about that. But taking his approach for granted underrates how difficult it is in the NFL to keep going and going like the Energizer Bunny.

“We always say, ‘You gotta love this man, you gotta love it,’” defensive linemen Dean Lowry said. “That’s the saying in the locker room. The daily grind with the meetings, the walk-throughs, the lifts, that really adds up.”

For Hunter, consistency does not mean staying the same. It means getting the same results, even when that might require a change. What he seems to enjoy most about football — aside from sacking the quarterback and doing his signature celebration — is the challenge of finding new ways to win the fight against whatever poor offensive tackle is assigned to him that week.

“You have to adapt in the league,” Hunter said. “If you feel comfortable then that’s your way out of the league. You have to always adapt as a player and continue learning. My old coaches have always told me to be a student of the game and that’s one thing I’ve always kept with me to this day. If you get bored with the game that’s when you start falling off. Always have to keep trying to learn, that’s the biggest thing.”

Hunter is now playing under his third defensive coordinator in his third system in three years and this time around he’s doing it without a fellow elite pass rusher like Everson Griffen or Za’Darius Smith. Results? The same.

“When you look at him he’s a freak but paired with that is his consistency and his commitment to…working his moves, learning new moves, taking stuff from other guys,” safety Harrison Smith said. “He’s always trying to add more, grow his game and he’s relentless about it.”

When the Vikings re-worked Hunter’s contract early in training camp after a short period where he came to the facility but did not practice, defensive coordinator Brian Flores couldn’t hide his happiness. Now that he’s gotten a look at him up close, he’s seeing all the situations where Hunter’s consistent energy comes into play. Flores brought up Hunter tracking down Bears quarterback Justin Fields from behind last week on a play that looked like he wouldn’t be able to catch the QB.

“It’s every day. It’s film, it’s technique, it’s fundamentals and it shows up on gameday. He still comes in and says, ‘I could have done this better or that better,’” Flores said.

What makes Hunter this way?

“He just loves the game, it’s something you can see,” outside linebacker Patrick Jones said.

“If you keep a chip on your shoulder and be a professional and handle your business, things usually work out. Danielle is the epitome of that,” Hicks said.

Hunter is the also epitome of a star pass rusher in terms of his play but not the attention that he gets. Since 2016 the only players with more sacks are Aaron Donald, TJ Watt, Myles Garrett, Cam Jordan and Chandler Jones yet the only discussions around him seem to be about whether he’s on the trade block. He isn’t a First Take topic and doesn’t have a podcast. You’d be hard pressed to find any stirring social media posts from him or online arguments about him. That’s either a benefit or drawback of consistency, depending on how you look at it.

“He’s actually a very interesting guy and I think he’s more interesting because he doesn’t broadcast everything to the world,” Smith said. “I think he’s a superstar type of guy he’s just not selling himself, which I appreciate.”

With the situation as it is — Hunter does not have a contract for next season and the Vikings could end up far enough out of the playoff race to take calls about trading him — we could be looking at the final weeks of the quietest superstar in the NFL. That’s how he should be remembered in Minnesota if this is the end. And you can bet there will be no noise from him in the coming games as the rumors swirl, just sacks and pressures.

“I was never one of those guys that bothered by this or media and all that,” Hunter said. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and I’m always going to try to capitalize on it.”