Danielle Hunter made history this season with the most sacks before turning 25. Before his career is over, he could find himself as the all-time sack leader for the Minnesota Vikings.
With a four-game winning streak heading into Week 9, the Minnesota Vikings find themselves among the best in the NFC and rising in the NFL power rankings, yet perhaps the best story so far this season isn’t getting the attention it deserves.
Plenty of attention is going to quarterback Kirk Cousins with his 115.2 quarterback rating, passing for 13 touchdowns with only three interceptions and Dalvin Cook who currently leads the NFL in rushing with 823 yards. However, the best story has been the performance of defensive end Danielle Hunter.
Hunter currently leads the Minnesota Vikings with eight sacks this season, tied for fourth-most in the NFL. His 48 career sacks before the age of 25 are the most of any player in the NFL since the stat has been recorded.
At the start of the season, he needed just two to move past Lance Johnstone and into the top 10 all-time in franchise history in sacks—he did that by Week 2. He is currently only two and a half sacks behind Doug Martin, who recorded 50.5 sacks over nine seasons with the Vikings. By the end of this season, Hunter has a pretty good shot to surpass Keith Millard (53) and Henry Thomas (56) and climb to seventh in franchise history—in just his fifth season. If he continues to perform as he has through the first eight games this season, seventh place all-time in Vikings’ franchise history is assured.
A third-round draft pick of the Minnesota Vikings in 2015, Hunter leads all players taken in his draft class in sacks. Frank Clark, a second-round draft pick by Seattle and currently playing with the Chiefs, is second with 38 sacks. The rest of the top five drafted in 2015 includes Preston Smith (31.5), Vic Beasley (31.0) and Za’Darius Smith (26.5).
What makes Hunter’s story so great might be that very few people saw it coming. When the Vikings selected Hunter 88th overall, he became the youngest player ever drafted at the age of 20. Not extremely high on anyone’s radar, Hunter was the eighth defensive end selected that year.
A look at his college career, there was little to indicate that Hunter would develop into the sack machine he has become in the NFL. After his junior season playing at LSU, Hunter declared for the NFL draft. Over three seasons and 23 starts for the Tigers, he recorded only 4.5 sacks. The most he had in any season came in 2013 as a sophomore with three. While not an impressive total, it still tied him for second-most on the team that year.
In his junior year, Hunter finished the season with only 1.5 sacks—it tied him for fifth on the team. Despite the low sack total, Hunter led the Tigers with 13 tackles for loss, almost twice as many than his next closest teammate. Despite not even earning an honorable mention on an All-SEC team, he decided to take the next step.
According to a review posted on Rotoworld on April 2, 2015:
"Hunter is a superior athlete, but he needs so much work. In fact, he needs to turn multiple weaknesses into strengths in order to succeed as a pass rusher. Hunter is strong and can already defend the run, but unless he plays with pre-snap intent, Hunter is lost as a pass rusher. His athleticism only shows up in these moments. He is a true “upside” prospect."
Hunter has obviously overcome any weaknesses that he brought with him from college. Since 2015 his 48 sacks are the seventh most in the league. All six players currently ahead of him are first-round draft picks. Being associated with this talented group of defenders that includes Chandler Jones, Aaron Donald, and Khalil Mack speaks volumes to the talent Hunter brings to the Vikings.
After only four years and 40 sacks, it became glaringly apparent that the Vikings found themselves a special player in Hunter. Before this season they signed him to a five-year, $72 million contract. That gives him through 2023 to continue his rise among the best pass rushers in Vikings’ history.
Here’s a look at how Hunter compares to the other players above him in the Vikings’ top 10 sack producers.
After playing 70 games, only Jared Allen and Millard recorded more sacks than Hunter, both with 51. Allen’s first 61 games were played with the Chiefs before being traded to the Vikings. While all three played in 70 games, Hunter has the fewest starts with 41. Millard started 60 and Allen 64 of their first 70 games. With the player rotations often used along the defensive line these days, the correlation between starts and snaps played may not be that significant. Still, better players start and tend to get more snaps. For Hunter, he did not become a full-time starter until his third season with the Vikings.
At 24 years old, Hunter has the advantage of at least two years on the field of the top ten sack producers for the Minnesota Vikings. Averaging 10.6 sacks per season, based on 48 in 70 games, by the time Hunter plays six seasons he would add another 15 sacks to his total. That would place him in the top five just behind his current teammate Everson Griffen.
For most of the players on the top 10 list for the Vikings, they got there either playing a long time or by averaging a lot of sacks over fewer years. Allen, who averaged more sacks per season than any other player on the list at 14.2, only played six seasons with the Vikings. His 85.5 sacks rank third in franchise history. At the other end, there are Brian Robison and Kevin Williams, who are tied for fifth on the list with 60 sacks. Their careers spanned 11 seasons with the Vikings averaging just 5.4 sacks per season.
Turning 25 at the end of October, Hunter’s production is close to that of John Randle’s. Averaging more than 10.5 sacks per season, Hunter would surpass the current franchise leader in sacks sometime in 2025. It would be his 11th season and at age 31 he would still be two years younger than Randle in his last season with the Vikings. To achieve this it will take at least one more contract with the Vikings for Hunter.
In a season with some pretty good stories so far, Hunter’s is historic and one that looks like Minnesota Vikings fans will be talking about for years to come.