Danielle Hunter Continues to Hit Milestones, Doing So Quietly

Photo Credit: Harrison Barden (USA Today Sports)

Danielle Hunter finished off David Blough and went into his patented sack celebration, which climaxed with a flying karate kick.

It’s the most animated the normally-stoic Hunter gets, whether he’s conducting a press conference or terrorizing opposing passers. It’s the one time he steps out of character and channels the beast that became, on Sunday, the youngest player in NFL history to record 50 sacks at 25 years, 40 days.

After his three-sack effort against Detroit, he’s now logged 52.5 sacks in nearly five seasons, averaging double-digit sacks per season despite playing less than 60% of snaps in 2015-16. Another five seasons like that, and he may have the Vikings’ all-time sacks record for defensive ends, breathing down John Randle’s neck for the most at any defensive position. And that would only put him at age 30.

True to form, however, there wasn’t much self-advertisement from Hunter after Sunday’s victory, the latest benchmark in Hunter’s quietly astonishing first five seasons.

“I only think about the now moment,” Hunter said rather than waxing on about his milestone. “I think about what I need to do now to help my team in order to win games and in order to put my teammates in position to make plays.”

A modest answer from what one of the league’s softer-spoken superstars.

Hunter has only made one Pro Bowl after he amassed a career-high 14.5 sacks in 2018. He’s two sacks away from matching that in 2019 with three games to go, and he ensured his third career season with 10 sacks or more when he sacked Blough on the game’s first series, beating tight end Jesse James around the edge. On his other two sacks, he used his 4.57 40-yard dash speed to catch Blough outside the pocket.

In essence, Hunter made a three-sack game look easy. As he does many of his on-field exploits.

The former third-round pick doesn’t quite have the gravitas of linemate Everson Griffen, whose enthusiastic antics and animated personality have endeared him to fans for the last decade. He’s not the swaggering Stefon Diggs, another member of Hunter’s draft class whose highlight-reel catches and confident aura have made him one of the more marketable Vikings.

Hunter more closely resembles safety Harrison Smith, whose unassuming personality pairs with a hard-hitting style of play.

“That’s kind of my favorite thing about him,” Smith said when asked about Hunter’s soft-spoken approach, “because he’s the youngest person ever to get 50 sacks, and he has 50-something now. That’s crazy. I mean, I don’t know how many people talk about him nationally. I think it’s a crime that they don’t. He’s a freak.”

Getting drafted at 20 his its advantages. Hunter was one of the youngest players taken in the 2015 draft, and despite playing in 75 regular season games, is still considered one of the Vikings’ young stars. Hunter inked a $72 million contract extension at 23, when many NFL players are just getting their feet wet. He’s locked up through 2023 at the bargain rate of $14.4 million per year, 10th amongst defensive ends in average annual salary and sure to watch many of his peers sign larger deals in the near future. Meanwhile, he leads all defensive ends in pressures.

“A lot of times you get pass rushers where all they want to do is rush the quarterback,” said Kirk Cousins, who was sacked twice by Hunter as the Washington quarterback and now faces him daily in practice. “I think Danielle is more of a complete player at defensive end, which you don’t really appreciate unless you’re in it, having to block him in the run game.”

Safety Anthony Harris, who also joined the team the same year as Hunter, spoke about his work ethic and lack of complacency.

“He was my roommate first year,” Harris said. “I’ve seen the progress. I’ve seen the natural ability of this guy, and then how he works, being detailed, not just relying on his athletic ability.”

Hunter is on track to finish top 10 in run stops for the third year out of the last four. One would think a player with such discipline in his game would be close to peaking, but head coach Mike Zimmer has long insisted there’s more untapped potential in Hunter, wanting him to react more and think less. Let it loose.

It’s a demand for perfection that could explain Hunter’s reluctance to dwell on his accomplishments.

“He’s a terrific athlete. Great kid. Hard worker,” said Zimmer. “I still think he’s got a lot of room to grow. He’s got some things that he can really improve on, and if it goes to that point where he does those, he’ll be really, really good.”

Hunter doesn’t take much credit for his 50-sack milestone. But after being probed enough after Sunday’s win, he confessed it does mean something. But in the most Danielle Hunter way possible.

“It’s an honor,” Hunter said. “I definitely didn’t do it by myself. Teammates, coaches and all that, if it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t be where I’m at today. If it was an individual effort, I wouldn’t have been nowhere close to it. It’s an honor.”

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