Hellcats are loud.
When Danielle Hunter showed up to the Vikings’ Eagan facility this spring, the Hellcat V8 engine in his Jeep Trackhawk SUV let the neighborhood know he’d arrived. After all, Hunter, a man of few words, mostly lets his presence (standing 6-5 outside of the Jeep) do the talking for him.
It’s not surprising, then, that he has has made little noise about the fact he’s entering a contract season.
Hunter has participated in every Vikings practice since the team reported voluntarily April 16. Now with Everson Griffen injured, Hunter is filling Griffen’s role as the top edge defender during spring practices. Hunter said his focus is adding to his pass-rushing arsenal — and possibly to his collection of what is currently two cars.
“Eventually they’re going to come out with the [Dodge] Ram with the same engine,” Hunter said Tuesday. “Hopefully I’ll be able to get that one, too.”
In time, Hunter should have flexibility to buy whatever he wants.
The Vikings’ fourth-year defensive end has solidified himself as the long-term bookend coaches envision opposite Griffen for seasons to come. Hunter has netted 26.5 sacks in three NFL seasons, the kind of production that makes many millions for edge defenders. He said he’s not concerned with whether he’s first, second or third on the Vikings’ priority list as linebacker Anthony Barr and receiver Stefon Diggs also enter the final season of their contracts.
Holding out isn’t a consideration, he said, adding that’s not how he wants to conduct his business. Hunter is represented by the same agent as Giants receiver Odell Beckham Jr., Elite Athlete Management’s Zeke Sandhu. Beckham Jr. decided to skip Giants voluntary workouts this spring while entering his contract season.
“Oh no,” Hunter said when asked about holding out. “I’m not worried about that. My job is to come here and play football. Whatever they’re talking about with the contract is between my agent and the team. So, I’m going to make sure I go out here and come to work, because that’s what I like to do.”
Pay scale for pass rushers
History indicates General Manager Rick Spielman will make attempts at long-term deals for all three cornerstone players prior to Week 1. Hunter is looking at a favorable market for 4-3 defensive ends.
He already has received a nearly $1.2 million pay raise for 2018 from the NFL’s “proven performance escalator” program, rewarding third- to seventh-round picks who play a lot. He’s set to become a free agent after accounting for $2.06 million of the Vikings’ salary cap this season.
Six of the NFL’s 4-3 defensive ends, including Griffen, already are averaging at least $11 million per season on long-term deals. That’s not counting two $17.1 million franchise tags on the Lions’ Ezekiel Ansah and the Cowboys’ Demarcus Lawrence.
To get to that level, Hunter said his offseason priorities revolved around conditioning and pass-rush moves.
Those two areas were pinpointed after Hunter’s first season as a full-time starter. A 20 percent increase in playing time (and 12.5 sacks the year before) led to more attention from offenses. Hunter was admittedly frustrated when he’d go long stretches in games without a true one-on-one opportunity.
That messed with his head at first.
“A lot of these young guys, they have a tendency to think so much about what they should do or what they might do,” coach Mike Zimmer said. “His natural reactions are good enough.”
Hunter started to find his groove at the end of the 2017 season. Coaches felt he hit his stride in December, when Hunter ranked as one of the most productive 4-3 pass rushers, according to Pro Football Focus.
Only three ends — Cameron Jordan, Mario Addison and Lawrence — had more pressures than Hunter in the final four games, according to PFF. Veteran defensive end Brian Robison, who ceded his starting spot to Hunter last year, said the 23-year-old “superhuman” can improve with more experiences identifying different formations and alignments.
“He’s still very, very young,” Robison said. “I think mentally, seeing things pre-snap will still help him quite a bit.”
Expectations remain high. You’d know it by the encouraging barks of fellow defensive linemen as Hunter takes on left tackle Riley Reiff in spring drills. You wouldn’t know by talking to Hunter, who once delivered a respectful “sorry” to Vikings legend Alan Page upon learning he broke his record as youngest player to lead the team in sacks.
After an up-and-down 2017 season, Hunter opts for the work now. He should expect the millions to follow.
“People always say I didn’t do this or didn’t do that,” Hunter said. “I don’t worry about that. We got where we needed to be. We were one game short. At the end of the day, it’s not about me. I go out there, do my work and everything will take care of itself.”