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In 2015 the Vikings turned the league’s youngest player into one of its most feared rookie pass rushers.
What can Danielle Hunter do for an encore?
The team’s third-round pick out of LSU turned 21 years old two days before Halloween last season, and something about that milestone signifying adulthood must have triggered the potential of Hunter, who had 5.5 sacks after his birthday. He finished with 6.0 on the season – only Preston Smith of the Washington Redskins had more amongst the crop of first-year players.
Hunter’s progression from a blank slate to a gifted pass rusher was incredible to watch considering the rookie took fewer than 400 snaps on the season. Hunter’s 392 reps ranked 14th amongst Vikings defensive players as he took part in just 36.5 percent of the team’s plays – certainly the lowest percentage of any player who might be considered a regular.
The Vikings began incorporating Hunter late in the season by either subbing him in for veteran Brian Robison or moving Robison to the inside and lining him up next to Hunter. The Vikings made a point of keeping the reliable Robison on the field at the same time as his protégé, which, in effect, gave the team three bona fide pass rushers on the field at once.
Hunter entered his rookie season as an intriguing physical specimen who lacked an understanding of proper pad level, rushing posture or blitzing technique – a testament to the difference between college and professional coaching. The Jamaican-born Hunter was a sponge in his first year and learned rapidly from defensive line coach Andre Patterson, as chronicled by ESPN’s Ben Goessling.
Per the story: Patterson sat him down to watch a clip of every rush he’d attempted at LSU. Without being prompted, Hunter brought a notepad to the meeting and jotted down everything Patterson said.
The hope is that Hunter can continue to evolve from a situational pass rusher to an every-down player and eventually replace Robison, who carries a $6 million cap hit if the Vikings hold on to him into the 2017 season.
Last year, the rookie got three-quarters of his sacks on third-and-long plays in which the opposing quarterback was almost surely passing. To play 898 snaps someday – as Robison did last year – Hunter will need to sturdy himself against the run and figure out when and how to be disciplined in his rush, since defensive ends don’t always have the luxury of a 3rd-and-15 scenario.
It will be interesting to see if the Vikings continue moving Robison inside to run stunts, which takes a talented defensive tackle off the field, though head coach Mike Zimmer has established a pattern of rotating his defensive line rather frequently, and Robison seemed to thrive in the role.
Bottom line: Expect an increase in reps this season for Hunter. Had the rookie received the same number of reps as Robison last year, Hunter would have had 14 sacks, in theory. It may also be an audition for Hunter so the Vikings can see if he’s ready to take an even bigger role in a Robison-less future.
The Vikings also didn’t do much in the draft to add defensive line depth with the exception of a seventh-round project Stephen Weatherly. Clearly, the team feels Hunter is poised for another leap.