After big payday, Danielle Hunter resumes making QBs the hunted

EAGAN, Minn. -- The messages began to circulate minutes after word got out that Danielle Hunter had signed a massive contract extension one month before training camp.

On top of the load of texts fluttering in, one message on the Minnesota Vikings defensive end’s phone kept rising toward the top, updating with new congratulatory messages and some ribbing at the hands of his defensive line teammates.

“Once we heard about that, we just texted the entire group thread, like, ‘Yo, congrats, bruh. Let me borrow a dollar!’” defensive tackle Jaleel Johnson said with a laugh.

The moment Hunter signed a five-year, $72 million deal worth $40 million in total guarantees, the soon-to-be fourth-year defensive end was no longer a rising star. While the 25.5 sacks Hunter racked up over the first three years of his career solidified him as an up-and-coming talent, the years of flying under the radar were over.

Nowadays, Hunter name comes up when discussing the league’s elite pass-rushers. He trails only Aaron Donald, who has played one more game than Hunter this season, in sacks, with 11.5 in nine games and 41 total pressures.

Hunter, who was 23 at the time, signed his contract earlier than many expected. The trajectory he’s on, including a streak of seven straight games with a sack, has some salary-cap experts speculating Hunter shortchanged himself by upwards of $4 million a year by signing now instead of waiting until after this season to ink his next contract.

Whether Hunter is trying to prove that he’s worth what the Vikings invested is a moot point. What’s evident to Minnesota, and the teams that passed on drafting Hunter in 2015, is that he’s worth every penny, and he’s playing like it.

“It’s been as a motivational factor for the rest of us, especially the younger guys coming up like me, Tashawn [Bower], Ifeadi [Odenigbo] and those other guys,” Johnson said. "For a guy like Danielle, that’s one guy I’ll say he definitely earned that. That was all him. The way he carries himself, the way he plays, the way he practices, it’s very deserving.”

Players such as Hunter aren’t typically available where he was drafted (88th overall). A much higher draft pick is usually required to land a player with Hunter’s ceiling and upside, as is apparent from the five defensive linemen taken in the first round of this year’s draft. Four years before he was traded to Chicago -- where he changed the makeup of the Bears' defense and, arguably, the entire outlook for the NFC North -- Khalil Mack was a prime example of that strategy, as he was selected by Oakland with the fifth overall pick in 2014.

Hunter's 4.5 sacks in the final two of his three seasons at LSU caused him to slip to the third round, where he became a heralded success story for the Vikings and molded a draft strategy rooted on investing in players whose best years are in front of them.

“You’re hoping you have more Danielle Hunter successes than you do on the misses that you have,” general manager Rick Spielman said. “I think the system we have in place right now, and the cohesiveness of the coaching staff ... if you look at our defensive line, for the most part, they almost look identical.

“There are physical traits and certain traits from a character standpoint that we look for. It’s funny our analytics department is evolving right now to the point where we’re almost able to clone players. Not literally, or else you’d see 190 Danielle Hunters walking around.”

As the Vikings gear up for a brutal stretch that will determine their playoff fate, Hunter’s role is critical. Before Minnesota’s bye week, the fourth-year pro earned NFC defensive player of the week honors after recording a career-high 3.5 sacks against Matthew Stafford. The Vikings pressured Stafford on 37.5 percent of his dropbacks, their second-highest rate of the season, mainly because of Hunter’s ability to disrupt in the backfield and create favorable matchups for his teammates.

“It’s awesome because they worry about him, and I get a little less attention, which allows me to do more work,” defensive end Stephen Weatherly said.

The Vikings face a surging Mitchell Trubisky, who has been sacked 18 times in nine games, on Sunday night. After that, it’s Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady and Russell Wilson. The Vikings’ league-high 31 sacks can be attributed to the effectiveness of their pass rush (eight of their 10 sacks against Detroit came with a standard pass rush of four or fewer rushers, per ESPN Stats & Info) and the play of their stalwart defensive ends between Hunter and Everson Griffen.

“I always say if I was coachable the way he is going into my early years, maybe things would be different,” Griffen said. “He’s very coachable. He takes what he learns in the classroom onto the field with him and does his job at a high level.”

Hunter had seven sacks last season, considered a low figure after he reached double digits in 2016 with 12.5, but he saw his play pick up after the Vikings' bye week. From that point, Hunter recorded four of his sacks down the stretch and played a critical role in the Vikings' defense reaching a No. 1 ranking.

Having already earned one individual honor, Hunter could be in the running for another if his play continues in an upward spiral over the next seven games. What he has shown so far might be only scratch the surface of what’s ahead.

“Danielle is, No. 1, a great kid. He works extremely hard,” coach Mike Zimmer said. “He goes to coach [Andre] Patterson every day and says, ‘What do I have to do to get better? What do I need to work on today?’ That’s just the kind of kid he is. He’s a great teammate. He’s a great team guy. It’s nice that he got some individual accomplishments today, but really, he’s more concerned about how the team does and how the defense plays.”