As the Vikings turned to Danielle Hunter at right defensive end for much of the season’s first half, moving the 24-year-old to their premier pass-rushing spot with Everson Griffen away from the team, Hunter responded with eight sacks in the team’s first eight games.
As strong as Hunter’s performance was, though, it turned out to be merely a prologue for the tour de force he turned in on Sunday. As the Vikings set a team record with 10 sacks in their win over the Lions on Sunday, Hunter posted 3 1/2 sacks, registered nine total tackles and picked up Matthew Stafford’s errant pitch in the fourth quarter, returning the fumble 32 yards for a touchdown that effectively sealed the game in the Vikings’ 24-9 win.
“Danielle is, No. 1, a great kid,” coach Mike Zimmer said. “He works extremely hard. He goes to Coach [Andre] Patterson every day and says, ‘What do I have to do to get better? What do I need to work on today?’ That’s just the kind of kid he is. He’s a great teammate. He’s a great team guy. It’s nice that he got some individual accomplishments today but, really, he’s more concerned about how the team does and how the defense plays.”
Be that as it may, Hunter now leads the league in sacks with 11 1/2, giving him 1 1/2 more than reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald. That should prompt the question: Could Hunter win the award in 2018?
He’s certainly building the right kind of resume: Five of the last six winners of the award have been pass rushers, with Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly the lone exception in 2013. J.J. Watt led the league in sacks during two of the three years he won the award, and Khalil Mack claimed the honor in 2016 before Donald won it last year. As modern NFL teams have resolved to throw the ball about 60 to 65 percent of the time, pass rushers are presented with more opportunities to affect games, and the premium placed on the best in the game has reached an even higher level. There’s certainly more precedent for a player like Hunter winning the award than there is for, say, Harrison Smith, who’s the only player in the NFL with at least three sacks and three interceptions this season.
Leading the league in sacks, though, isn’t a guarantee of Defensive Player of the Year honors; Watt is the only sack champion to win the award since Michael Strahan in 2001, and he did it by forcing at least three fumbles in both of those seasons. Mack and Donald each forced five fumbles the year they won the award, and both Watt and Von Miller — who’ve got nine sacks with four forced fumbles apiece this season — could be strong candidates again. Hunter hasn’t forced a fumble yet, and his touchdown on Sunday was his first recovery, so he might need to be involved in more turnovers during the second half of the season to have a strong chance of winning. He’s been impressive against the run this season, snuffing out attempts to press outside runs in his direction, and Hunter has always strived to be a more complete player than just a pass-rushing specialist. But especially when he lacks the name recognition of players like Watt or Donald — he’s never been to a Pro Bowl, and he operates with a fairly low profile opposite Everson Griffen — it might take a few more splash plays for Hunter to have a chance at joining Alan Page and Keith Millard as the only Vikings to win the award.
If Hunter were to be asked about his chances at such an individual honor, it’s likely he’d respond in a similar manner to how he talked about his big day on Sunday: by crediting his teammates for helping him get the opportunities, and professing not to care about individual accolades. That doesn’t seem to be bluster, either; when Hunter learned his five-year, $72 million extension was ready to be signed this offseason, he boarded a flight from Houston to Minneapolis to sign the deal and conduct a press conference, and went right back to Houston to resume work with trainer James Cooper. For now, perhaps it’s enough to say Hunter is adding his name to the pantheon of great Vikings pass rushers — and given the fact he just turned 24, there’s likely plenty more where his performance on Sunday came from.
“That guy’s parents are great for getting together and making a guy like that,” defensive end Stephen Weatherly said on Sunday.