Already on the Road to Greatness, Danielle Hunter Faces New Challenges in 2020

Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

The NFL didn’t begin officially tracking sacks until 1982, and in the nearly 40 years since it has become the easiest method for measuring the greatness of pass rushers. The sack isn’t a perfect metric and it certainly doesn’t offer a complete barometer of a defensive player’s ability to get after the quarterback. However, it’s simple for fans to quantify. It’s much more tangible than pressures and hurries and hits.

Don’t misunderstand; there’s nothing wrong with sacks in terms of their actual impact. Sacks stall drives, occasionally result in turnovers and can alter games. Plus, they make for entertaining highlights. In short, sacks are sexy. It’s just that a really good defensive lineman or edge rusher can have a huge impact on a game even without necessarily registering sacks.

Having said that, when a player is really good at accumulating sacks — however imperfect the metric — it’s worthy of notice. Thus, when Danielle Hunter became the youngest player in NFL history (since 1982 at least) to collect 50 sacks, it was noteworthy. The Minnesota Vikings’ Pro Bowl defensive end hit the milestone on the third play of the game against the Detroit Lions in Week 14 last season. He was 25 years and 40 days old at the time.

Hunter added four more sacks by the end of the regular season before adding 2.5 more in the playoffs. Heading into this season, he has 54.5 regular-season sacks in his career. He’s made the past two Pro Bowls and was No. 57 on the NFL’s Top 100 players countdown prior to last season. He should be ranked even higher when they announce the 2020 list.

Of course, Hunter does more than just compile fancy, easy-to-digest sack totals. At Pro Football Focus, they have a formula called Pass Rush Productivity that accounts for sacks, quarterback hits and hurries relative to the number of times a player rushes the passer. Hunter has ranked in the top five in the NFL each of the past two seasons.

All of which means he’s not a secret weapon. He has a target on his back for opposing offenses. Vikings fans might think he’s underrated or doesn’t get the acclaim he deserves, but coaches and players are fully aware of him.

And at his age, Hunter’s prime seasons are very likely dead ahead. He won’t turn 26 until Oct. 29, 2020, at which point he might be closing in on 70 career sacks. Unless of course, he fails to adapt to new challenges in 2020.

In addition to being a marked man by opposing offenses, Hunter will apparently also be without Everson Griffen on the other end of the Vikings’ line. Griffen remains a free agent as of this writing. Meanwhile, the Vikings still have salary cap room as well as jersey number 97 still available. In other words, he could be brought back. Assuming Griffen doesn’t return, however, Hunter will need to bear more pressure to impact games while being singled out by offenses that no longer have to pick their poison between the two.

It will be up to veterans like Ifeadi Odenigbo, Eddie Yarbrough, Anthony Zettel or perhaps rookies D.J. Wonnum and Kenny Willekes to fill Griffen’s shoes. It won’t be easily done, and some kind of rotation will certainly be employed. Regardless of who lines up at the end opposite Hunter, they will surely enjoy less attention. It’s not like Hunter has never faced two blockers at a time before. It’s something any edge rusher who reaches his level has to deal with. But he’ll see no relief from the double-teams now – not until someone steps up on the other side… or the Vikings find new ways to bring pressure.

That’s where new senior defensive assistant Dom Capers could make his presence felt. In addition to his reputation for using 3-4 defensive alignments, Capers can bring ideas for incorporating more exotic pressures. Along with new co-defensive coordinators Andre Patterson and Adam Zimmer, it will be incumbent upon them to design some new looks for this year’s Vikings defense. Mike Zimmer needs new recipes for his defensive playbook. They can’t leave Hunter alone every play to be buried by all kinds of blockers.

Moving Hunter around the formation is an obvious option. In 2018, when Griffen missed five games, Hunter lined up nearly half of the time on the right side as opposed to his natural spot on the left. In 2019, he was used almost exclusively on the left.

Even if Griffen returns, the Vikings will still have as many as four new starters on defense. Having new defensive tackle/powerlifter Michael Pierce clogging the rushing lanes could alleviate some of the pressure from Hunter and occasionally help tie up extra blockers.

The secondary will feature new starters at both outside cornerback positions as well as slot corner, and at least one of them could be a rookie. If the coverage improves over last year, it will enable the Vikings to apply more pressure to opposing quarterbacks as well. However, the Vikings ranked third in team defensive coverage by Pro Football Focus last season in spite of Xavier Rhodes’ fall-off. Having the best safety duo in the league helps. For the record, the Vikings ranked eighth in pass rush defense by PFF last season.

This just in: Getting after the quarterback and covering wide receivers go hand-in-hand. It’s the basis of Zimmer’s defense.

Improving on pass coverage with three new starters in the secondary will be a tall task – one that will put even more pressure on Hunter to take his game to a new level by disrupting the timing of opposing quarterbacks.

If Hunter is able to rise up and meet these new challenges as he enters his prime, he will help mask whatever shortcomings the defense might have in the short term. And if he’s able to do so while still getting to the quarterback as often as he has the past two seasons, he’ll be worthy of even more accolades – maybe even AP first-team All-Pro recognition. Because even though those sacks don’t tell the whole story, they still mean something to fans, players and the writers who vote on All-Pro teams.

Hunter’s current career trajectory is pointed squarely toward greatness. In order to continue that trajectory this season, overcoming new obstacles will be the key.

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