The Minnesota Vikings’ defense has seen its fair share of ups and downs to start the season, but there is no debate about its brightest spot: Defensive lineman Danielle Hunter.
The Vikings’ young pass rusher has five sacks in the first five games of the year, pushing his name into some incredible company. According to Vikings PR, he’s tied with former No. 1 overall pick Mario Williams for the fifth most sacks by a player under the age of 24.
Hunter is the 8th player in NFL history under the age of 24 to record 30.0 sacks.
1. Shawne Merriman – 39.5
2. Aldon Smith – 38.0
3. Robert Quinn – 34.5
4. Terrell Suggs – 33.5
5t. Danielle Hunter – 30.5
5t. Mario Williams – 30.5
7. -Von Miller – 30.0
8. Derrick Thomas – 30.0
— Vikings PR (@VikingsPR) October 7, 2018
Despite his incredible athletic gifts, Hunter’s NFL production was not predicted by teams at the highest level. He was selected in the third round largely because the Vikings’ star rusher only managed 4.5 sacks at LSU.
Head coach Mike Zimmer was asked Monday why his young defensive end — who signed a long-term contract extension this offseason — has risen to one of the elite players at his position.
Before diving into Hunter’s makeup, he credited defensive line coach Andre Patterson.
“First of all, Andre is a great coach,” Zimmer said. “I’ve been with him for 30-some years probably, but he’s a great coach, good technician, he works really hard at it.”
The Vikings’ coach continued:
“We look for certain traits that these players have, and it’s not just all athletic ability,” he said. “Danielle Hunter is a guy that just wants to get better every single day, so that’s part of it… I don’t think Danielle ever thinks that he’s arrived. I think he’s always trying to [say], “What can I do better today? What can I do better now? How am I going to get better?” He’s always asking those questions, especially to Andre.”
Hunter isn’t the only early-20s defensive lineman whose stock is rising. Former seventh-round pick Stephen Weatherly, who was forced into a starting role because of the absence of Everson Griffen, has performed admirably. He’s created 12 quarterback pressures in 120 pass rush snaps, including a strip sack of Carson Wentz that turned into a Linval Joseph touchdown on Sunday.
“When he first came here in the first little bit, he was a guy that would stop his feet on the rush, kind of measure,” Zimmer said of Weatherly. “Now he’s just rushing and using his athletic abilities. If the guy oversets he comes inside, if he sets too tight, he works the outside edge. I think he’s just getting a better feel of it, but the number one thing is not stopping his feet.”
Hunter and Weatherly will have more opportunities to continue their hot starts to the year on Sunday when they face the Arizona Cardinals. The Cards are rated 32nd in pass block grade by Pro Football Focus.