EAGAN, Minn. – The Minnesota Vikings refer to Danielle Hunter as “Create-a-player” because on the Madden video game he would be 99 everything. If you’re not of millennial age or younger, that one might go over your head, but the point is that Hunter excels in every category, from size to speed to quickness to smarts to drive. And the Vikings landed the NFL leader in sacks in the 2015 draft in the third round in part because they ignored his traditional statistics.
In 26 games at LSU, Hunter only picked up 4.5 sacks. If you haven’t heard this one before, you probably spit out your coffee because the Vikings’ star pass rusher has 37 sacks in 55 NFL games.
The Vikings took a swing based on Hunter’s athleticism and underlying numbers. At the NFL Combine, he scored in the 91st percentile in the 10-yard split, 96th in the 40-yard dash and 98th in the broad jump. During his junior year, the 24-year-old defensive end also had 13 tackles for loss.
Of course, not every big swing at a freakish athlete with good underlying numbers is going to end up being as good as Hunter, but the Vikings are using his success as a blueprint to find more under-the-radar players in the draft and undrafted free agent market.
“I think the system that we have in place right now, the cohesiveness with the coaching staff and if you look at the defensive line, for the most part they almost look identical,” general manager Rick Spielman said on Tuesday. “Stephen Weatherly, well, Danielle is a freak, but even some of the guys we just drafted this year and are on IR, they have certain physical traits and certain traits from a character standpoint that we look for.”
Few players compare to Hunter, but Weatherly has a similar stature to Hunter at 6-foot-4, 267-pounds and with a 4.61 40-yard dash, only 0.04 different from the Vikings’ young star. Weatherly’s 10-yard split was 1.59, which is 0.01 different than Hunter’s was at the Combine.
Weatherly, who only managed 11.5 sacks in there seasons at Vanderbilt, also has something in common with Hunter: his mental makeup. The Vikings’ 2016 seventh-round pick’s grandmother has degrees from MIT and Harvard.
“With all this data we have now, psychological scores, there different intelligence scores that we use, the stuff that we do to try to measure passion for the game and all the physical scores,” Spielman said. “The stats from college are maybe the least thing that we look at except certain portions of those. When you can take all that and they throw it into all their different algorithms they come up with, we’re getting to the point where when we look at the draft this year and we’re looking at player A, B or C, I want them to tell us who is he most similar to from all those other scores besides what we grade on the tape.”
Weatherly has stepped into a bigger role in his third NFL season and become a significant part of the Vikings’ rotation on the defensive line. He’s picked up three sacks and 20 pressures in 222 pass-rushing snaps this season and held down the right defensive end position during Everson Griffen’s five-game absence.
Clearly the Vikings aren’t using only the physical and character data to make decisions and give grades. Spielman calls it a “tie breaker.” The information provided by scouts is still the top determining factor in formulating the draft board.
“We keep it separate from what we see on the tape from a grade standpoint and then I have the analytics do their deal and we combine it all and get ready for the draft,” Spielman said. “To me, everybody that you’re drafting has physical ability and I’ve always been intrigued with athletes. I’ve always taken chances on athletes. Now if you can come up with the numbers that say ‘this is is mental makeup,’ and we’re always trying to mention this and this [head and heart] because that’s what makes the difference to me in this league.”
Naturally the Vikings have missed more than they have hit on players in the late rounds who checked a lot of athletic and character boxes. The reason: It’s hard to know how a player will react to circumstances in the NFL that are vastly different from college.
“You really don’t know until you get a hold of them and have been with them,” head coach Mike Zimmer said in late August. “Even sometimes with the rookies, you are really not sure because he is trying to learn everything. But once he gets it down for the most part and things happen, you can probably have a better idea.”
The adapting to game speed and processing is also a major challenge for players making the jump, especially ones considered “raw” prospects.
“Each guy is a little bit different, but typically you have to be around them for a little while,” Zimmer said. “A lot of it is being able to process on the move. The formation changes or the defense changes and a guy has to go from blocking this guy or blocking that guy. That is what I mean a lot of times by being smart. It takes a little while. We do all the tests before we draft them and all that. Sometimes testing and the draft and going on the field is a different thing.”
Spielman said the team has emphasized spending in the undrafted free agent market on players who meet their required specs. This year they have seen 2018 UDFAs Holton Hill, Mike Boone, Roc Thomas, Chad Beebe and Brandon Zylstra all see playing time and 2017 UDFAs Tashawn Bower and Eric Wilson play roles as well.
“We’re getting closer and closer to being able to create some measurements that give us some idea what [head and heart] means,” Spielman said. “Danielle Hunter may not be the player he is if he doesn’t have the mental makeup he has, always wanting to get better, passion for the game that he plays with. How can we find that combination and apply that going forward.”