Danielle Hunter was the youngest player taken in the entire 2015 NFL draft. He was just 20 years old when the Vikings selected him 88th overall out of LSU, believing that his superhuman physical gifts gave him the upside to become a dynamic pass rusher in the NFL.
It had taken Hunter until Week 4 of his sophomore year to make his first college start, and he wound up recording a grand total of 4.5 sacks in his LSU career. So when he got to Minnesota, he had a lot to learn and a lot of growing to do. Hunter made sure to soak up as much information as possible from defensive line coach Andre Patterson and the veterans on the line, including defensive ends Brian Robison and Everson Griffen.
"When I first came in it was [Griffen] and B-Rob I was mostly watching," Hunter said during a Zoom call with local media on Wednesday. "Coach Andre sat down with me and told me to watch these guys, they've been in the league for six-plus years, and I tried to implement things they've done on the field into my game. Both of them sat down and they talked to me about what to do in certain situations and kind of tried to make me figure out the type of player I am."
Hunter, who was born in Jamaica and grew up in Texas, went out and had six sacks in a rotational role as a rookie. A year later, he finished tied for third in the league with 12.5 sacks, despite playing less than 60 percent of the Vikings' defensive snaps. He's been a full-time starter since 2017, and is coming off of back to back Pro Bowl seasons with exactly 14.5 sacks. In October, Hunter broke the NFL record for career sacks before turning 25, dating back to when they became an official stat in 1982. He's a superstar.
But this offseason has been unlike anything he has previously experienced, and Hunter knows it's time to take another step forward in his growth. As he heads into year six, he has watched the Vikings' defense fall apart around him. Griffen and Linval Joseph left in free agency, and with Robison having retired two years ago, that means all of Hunter's mentors on the defensive line are no longer around. The Vikings also moved on from five different players in their secondary, including veterans Xavier Rhodes, Andrew Sendejo, and Trae Waynes, who was the first-round pick in Hunter's 2015 draft class.
All that's left up front is Hunter, new defensive tackle Michael Pierce, and a crop of young players. Hunter knows that he's the de facto leader of that group now, and it's a role he's prepared to embrace.
"I learned a lot from those guys," Hunter said. "I’ll definitely pass along what I’ve learned from them to the other guys in the group and the new guys that are coming in. I definitely see myself as turning into the leadership role of passing on the knowledge of what I’ve learned and teaching the younger guys...the roots and the fundamentals of becoming a good defensive end or defensive lineman."
Hunter says he wasn't surprised to see all of the departures this offseason. In addition to Waynes, Stefon Diggs is another starring member of the 2015 draft class who found a new home in March.
"It’s a business," Hunter said. "It would be very unrealistic if you were able to keep a team the same way for ‘x’ amount of years, but it’s a business. Guys have got to do what’s best for them, and sometimes the team has to do what’s best for them, and it’s just a part of life. We can only deal with the situation we have now, and that’s to make progress and change."
Throughout his first five years, Hunter has mostly stayed out of the spotlight and gone about his business quietly. Griffen was the team's emotional leader, the guy who "gets everybody going." Hunter is just a humble guy from Texas who wants to help his team win however he can. But even at 25 years old, his maturity and production make him an obvious candidate to take on the additional responsibility of becoming a mentor to the younger players on the defense.
Like Robison, Griffen and Joseph helped him, Hunter knows it's his turn to help players like Ifeadi Odenigbo, Jaleel Johnson, and Armon Watts continue to grow and improve. That's something he says he's already been doing for a couple years now.
“I’m going to be leading by example," Hunter said. "If I see somebody who needs help, I’ll go and help ‘em out. I’m always a guy, if I see somebody who needs help, I’m always going to go over there and help ‘em out. I’m never going to keep the information to myself. It’s better off with the team sharing information about what they know. What I’ve gathered through the five years, I’m definitely going to be sharing throughout the defensive line on what they need to do to get better."
When it comes to Hunter's individual performance, he feels there's always more room to grow. Considering only Aaron Donald and Chandler Jones have more sacks than he does since 2018, the idea of Hunter continuing to add to his game is a scary one. He says it's about staying focused on the little things – the technical aspects of rushing the passer – and continuing to "level up" every year.
"That all starts from just going back to the basics, learning how to take my power steps again," Hunter said. "Taking the correct steps, hand placements, arm placements and all that. Every year you just start over again, and it becomes easier and easier to start over. But you’ve got to make sure you sharpen those tools first before you move onto the, ‘Ok, what move am I going to try to do this year.’"
Hunter made his second straight Pro Bowl appearance in January, and he used that time to talk shop with some of his peers around the league. Jones and the Packers' Za'Darius Smith were among the players he spoke with about different moves that they use.
"Chandler said he saw me using moves and I said I saw him using moves, and I said once I get back into my form, my pass-rushing form, I’ll try some of those," Hunter said. "So, I’ll definitely be trying new moves down the line, but you just got to take it at the start by going back to the basics.’’
Given how much talent they lost on the defensive side of the ball, the Vikings might need Hunter to level up again in 2020. Could he push towards 20 sacks? A first team All-Pro selection? According to Hunter, those things will come if he continues to do what he's been doing for the last five years.
"Eventually those will fall into place, but I can’t look too far down the line," Hunter said. "I just got to focus on what is now. And that’s getting better as a player and finding ways to win games.’’
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