I was watching the Vikings’ 20-7 victory over the Lions when I happened to hear the broadcast team announce something that I hadn’t realized. Not only had Minnesota defensive end Danielle Hunter notched the 50th sack of his career, but at 25 years old, he became the youngest player to ever make it to 50 sacks in NFL history.
That is a pretty big deal.
Think about all the incredible pass rushers to play in the NFL, and then think about the fact that Hunter made it to 50 sacks at a younger age than any of those other cats. Hearing them say that had kind of a jarring effect on me. This guy has been kicking ass for a while now, but after reaching that milestone, you would think Hunter would be a household name.
I think it’s safe to assume that he is not.
Let me be clear, though: Hunter is a baller’s baller. He came into the league making noise right off the bat as a rookie, notching six sacks playing primarily on passing downs. Since then, Hunter has notched at least 12.5 sacks in three out of his first five seasons.
Yet for whatever reason, Hunter has become one of those guys who we don’t talk about nearly enough. I pointed out earlier this season how Cardinals edge rusher Chandler Jones is the most underrated pass rusher in the league. Well, after mulling it over, Hunter can’t be far behind. I really can’t put my finger on why that is, either.
Hunter actually ended up with a total of three sacks on Sunday, and the last of which drove home to me just how absurdly underrated he is. Let me describe it to you real quick.
Hunter’s third sack against the Lions was ridiculous — and the turning point in the game
The Vikings jumped out to a 10-0 lead, but just before halftime, the Lions had worked their way all the way down the field to the Minnesota 18-yard line. They were facing a very manageable third-and-2 with over a minute left in the half. The mistake the Lions made on that play, which ended up short-circuiting all their plans, was leaving Hunter single-blocked by their right tackle, Ricky Wagner.
It didn’t help Wagner’s cause that his quarterback, David Blough, was in the shotgun and running back Bo Scarborough motioned out of the backfield and up to line as an inside receiver, tipping pretty much everybody in the stadium off to the fact that the Lions were going to throw the ball.
Hunter initially took a couple of steps wide to create some distance between himself and Wagner. Then he turned back in and approached Wagner aggressively as if Hunter was going to hit Wagner with one of his patented pulverizing power rushes. When Hunter got to about within arm’s reach of Wagner, he stopped and chopped his feet instead of trying to run through Wagner’s chest. Wagner, spooked by Hunter’s initial approach, had already stopped his feet anticipating having to absorb a big blow. When Hunter hit him with the cha-cha-cha, that just served to get Wagner off balance as well.
Seeing that he had already broken Wagner down, Hunter stepped back out wide with his outside (left) foot, and shot a rip move with his inside (right) arm to run right around Wagner, whose feet were now stuck in the ground like he was wearing cement shoes.
And that’s when it happened.
In that moment, Blough seemed to feel Hunter coming, so he first drifted to his left and tried to scramble outside the pocket and away from Hunter. That probably sounded like a good idea in his head, but unfortunately for Blough, Hunter had an extra gear in his giddy-up. Hunter flashed the kind of elite burst that you rarely see from anybody his size and he closed the gap in a ridiculously short amount of time. Before Blough could even pull the ball back to throw, Hunter was able to take those long arms of his and forcibly shove Blough to the ground for his third sack of the game.
Blough ended up losing 12 yards on that play, Lions kicker Matt Prater missed a field goal attempt on the next play, and the Vikings promptly went down and scored a touchdown to extend their lead to 17-0 at halftime. It might not have really registered as just how big play of a play that sack was at the time, but in hindsight it made a huge difference at that point in the game. It was also an important win for the Vikings, who are battling tor a spot in the playoffs.
Hunter has Clowney-like athleticism, but no one ever talks about it
I sat there rewinding that sack over and over again when the all-22 of the game posted, just marveling at the elite athleticism and acceleration it took for Hunter to make that play from start to finish.
Somehow, between the end of his last season at college and around the beginning of his second year in the NFL, Hunter transformed himself from a guy who relied almost exclusively on his athleticism to make plays, to a finely tuned technician who could win in myriad ways on the field. He improved so much with his hand usage and footwork that two years into his NFL career he almost looked like a totally different guy from the Danielle Hunter everyone saw at LSU.
He actually continues to add to his tool box to this day, and he has made himself into one of the tougher dudes to block in all of the NFL.
When it comes to edge rusher play, there just aren’t many who can get the job done better than Hunter on a week-to-week basis. Flashy or not, he is unquestionably effective. His third sack against the Lions was exactly the kind of play people gush about when a guy like Jadeveon Clowney makes it.
Almost every time Clowney’s name comes, up people mention how athletic he is, but it rarely comes up anymore with Hunter. Now that he is a much more complete player, it’s almost easier to forget just how athletic he is as well. That burst he showed on that sack on Sunday was a great reminder, and I’m going to make damn sure I don’t ever forget again.
When we talk about the future of the league when it comes to pass rushers, Danielle Hunter’s name should undoubtedly be right there in the mix with the Clowneys and Donalds and Bosas. He’s earned that.
I looked at all of the pass rushers with at least double-digit sacks so far this season, and of those 10 other players, Hunter was younger than all but two of them. It turns out he’s even younger than third-year Steelers edge rusher T.J. Watt, who is actually 18 days older than Hunter.
Now ask yourself which player you have heard a lot more about this year. Which is to take nothing away from Watt, who is having a fantastic year and whom I have also praised this season. The point is they both should be getting somewhere close to the same amount of attention, at least in my estimation. They are, after all, tied with 12.5 sacks on the year.
At the rate he’s going, Hunter will almost assuredly go down as one of the greatest defensive linemen the game has ever known. Even though he’s been in the league close to five years now, he’s still so young that he probably hasn’t even entered into the prime of his career just yet.
If you haven’t been paying much attention to him before, now is as good a time to start as any. His star is on the way up and there’s no telling just how high it will go.