MINNEAPOLIS - Danielle Hunter remembers being a wide-eyed rookie on the Minnesota Vikings defensive line in 2015. He watched as Everson Griffen and Brian Robison, among others, went about their business as NFL veterans.
Fast forward five years, and now Hunter will be taking the reigns in 2020 as one of the leaders of the Vikings’ defense. So far this offseason, eight defensive players who either started or were regular contributors last season have either been cut or signed elsewhere in free agency.
That includes Griffen, Linval Joseph and Stephen Weatherly on the defensive line. The defensive line will look a lot different next year, with his only teammate left being Shamar Stephen. It’s the nature of the NFL.
“It’s a business. It would be very unrealistic if you were able to keep a team the same way for X amount of years. It’s a business, guys gotta do what’s best for them and sometimes the team has to do what’s best for them. It’s just a part of life,” Hunter said Wednesday via Zoom.
Hunter has emerged as one of the more dominant defensive ends in the NFL. He had 14.5 sacks last season among his 70 tackles, 15 tackles for loss and used his speed and strength to get around offensive linemen.
His drive and work ethic will probably never be questioned. He works out daily with a trainer and runs a mile whenever he can to stay in top shape as athletes all over the world are quarantined due to the Coronavirus pandemic.
He’s also not afraid to swap ideas with colleagues. He said he talked at the Pro Bowl with Chandler Jones and Za’Darius Smith about different techniques they all use to get better at their positions.
Hunter has become an elite defensive end in the NFL. He was the fastest in league history to amass at least 50 sacks in his first five seasons. Other individual goals he’s pursuing include being named All-Pro, earning the NFL’s single-season sack record and winning the Defensive Player of the Year. Those things will come, he says, if he focuses on the now and puts in the work.
“A lot of people tend to forget the little things whenever they make it far in life. I’ve been taught not to do that,” Hunter said.
There’s no doubt he’ll be asked to take on a leadership role with the Vikings this season. Adam Zimmer and Andre Patterson are taking over co-defensive coordinator duties after George Edwards’ departure.
Add to that the departures of Griffen, Weatherly, Joseph, Xavier Rhodes, Trae Waynes, Jayron Kearse, Andrew Sendejo and Mackensie Alexander. That’s eight players gone from a defense that finished 14th in the NFL last year.
Their biggest addition in the offseason, literally and figuratively, has been nose tackle Michael Pierce to replace Joseph. Still, several questions remain.
“It’s a business, you’re not going to keep everybody forever. I’ll turn to my coach, Andre Patterson, he has the plan and Zim has the plan of developing the defense that we have and the only thing we can build on that part is just by doing our part and developing as a player individually as far has helping the team winning games,” Hunter said.
It'll be up to Patterson and Adam Zimmer to share the defensive coaching duties, something they each said in the offseason they’re up for.
“You can’t achieve it until you know what it’s supposed to look like. Adam and I know when this defense is right, what it’s supposed to look like,” Patterson said earlier this offseason.
Hunter is ready to take on that leadership role he’s likely to get, being one of the few veterans left on the defensive line. He doesn’t have a problem being a mentor to younger players.
“I’m going to be leading by example, if I see somebody needing help, I’m going to go and help them out. I’m always a guy that if I see somebody who needs help, I’m always going to go over and help them out. I’m never going to keep information to myself,” Hunter said.