Despite winning the NFC North in 2015, the Minnesota Vikings aren’t what you’d call a high-profile team. And the players who form the backbone of the team’s defense are hardly household names.
But while John Q. Six-Pack might not know who Everson Griffen and Harrison Smith are, and they might not have their own Chunky Soup commercials, both players have been familiar to IDP owners for quite some time. After all, it pays a great deal in our pastime to be aware of young players headed for a potential breakout season.
Well, there’s a new name to add to that list in 2016 — Vikings defensive end Danielle Hunter.
Playing in a situational role (398 snaps) for the Vikings as a 245-pound rookie and (at the time) the youngest player in the NFL in 2015, Hunter racked up 33 tackles and six sacks, grading out especially well (13th among 4-3 defensive ends per Pro Football Focus) against the run. Those six sacks were enough to rank Hunter second on the team to Griffen.
It was a rookie year that left many fans in the Twin Cties eager to see what Year 2 could bring. And as OTAs for the Vikings wrapped recently Ben Goessling of ESPN wrote there isn’t a player in Minnesota with more buzz surrounding him than Hunter.
“Hunter has spent part of his offseason training with running back Adrian Peterson at his gym in Houston,” Goessling said. “After a six-sack rookie season, Hunter could be in line for bigger things in Year 2. While training with Peterson, Hunter has done some boxing as a way to develop his moves and counters for NFL offensive tackles. Keep an eye on how much playing time he gets at left end, where veteran Brian Robison still figures to be a prominent part of the Vikings’ defense.”
Hunter detailed some of that training, which resulted in several pounds of added muscle, while speakimg with Chris Tomasson of The Twin Cities Pioneer Press. “We lifted weights and ran hills,” Hunter said. “It was some crazy stuff. We did bear crawls and all that. We bear crawled up the hill backward. I’m doing whatever I can to contribute to my team.”
Hunter’s efforts haven’t gone unnoticed by his teammates. “That’s a lot of work he puts in, but a lot of it is God-given as well,” tight end Kyle Rudolph said. “You can work out as much as you want, and I don’t know if you’re going to look like him. But he does put in the time in the weight room to develop his strength and his power.”
Tackle Phil Loadholt added, ““He’s really quick off the ball. He’s always quick, but it seems like he’s got a little more burst to him. Stronger. He’s a good player.”
Mind you, this is a player who Lance Zierlein of NFL.com compared to Jason Pierre-Paul of the New York Giants entering the 2015 NFL draft — with the caveat that Hunter’s pass-rush upside would hinge largely on what sort of coaching he received at the professional level.
“Hunter isn’t as heavy as Jason Pierre-Paul,” Zierlein said, “but he has similar length, explosiveness and potential. The concern with Hunter is that his pass-rush instincts are marginal and he hasn’t learned to use his physical advantages to rush the quarterback more consistently. Hunter’s floor is high thanks to his overwhelming physical traits and motor, but his ceiling will only go as high as the level of coaching he is able to incorporate.”
If six sacks in less than 400 snaps last year is any indication, either Hunter’s instincts are better than Zierlein thought or Zimmer’s defensive acumen rubbed off on him in a big way.
Now, Zimmer also isn’t the sort of coach to just hand an increased role to a player. They have to earn it. And Robison is a 10th-year veteran who has started 79 of a possible 80 games for the Vikings the past five seasons. He’s also a 33-year-old who has never recorded double-digit sacks in a season who ranked 42nd of 48 qualifiers at his position at PFF in 2015.
Robison is the past. Hunter is the future. The question for IDP owners. becomes how much the youngster’s playing time increases in the present.
Robison actually played the most snaps of any Minnesota DE last year (913), and barring injury it’s unlikely that he’ll just fade into obscurity as Hunter rampages his way across the NFL in 2016. For the purposes of this article it would be awfully convenient, but that’s usually not how it happens.
Still, it’s not at all hard to imagine a scenario where Griffen picks up another dozen (or more) snaps per contest, which would bump him from about 400 snaps on the season to about 600. Assuming similar per-snap production that would put Hunter at about 50 tackles, nine sacks and a couple of forced fumbles on the year — numbers that would land Hunter inside the top 15 defensive linemen for the season.
And make no mistake, if Hunter can maintain anything close to his per-snap production in a larger role he’s getting more than 12 more snaps a game. A lot more.
In other words, there’s IDP upside galore present with Hunter — yet he’s barely a blip on the IDP draft radar at this point, with an ADP in low-end DL3 territory.
At that modest price, Hunter’s a gamble worth taking all day long.