Danielle Hunter has played 4,226 snaps in 80 games over five seasons as one of the NFL’s most physical and feared pass rushers.
And he’s been penalized six times for 42 yards.
In his entire Vikings career.
“That,” said teammate Ifeadi Odenigbo, “is CRA-zy.”
Hunter has jumped offsides once. Thirty-three games ago. And he’s never roughed a single passer or anyone else, even accidentally, heading into Sunday’s regular-season finale against the Bears at U.S. Bank Stadium.
In today’s flag-happy NFL, how is that even possible? How does a guy this young (25) and that productive stay this clean while posting 54½ sacks and bull-rushing his way into the field of candidates for this year’s Associated Press NFL Defensive Player of the Year award?
“Just playing the game the right way,” shrugged Hunter, whose DPOY case could take a hit Sunday if coach Mike Zimmer sits his starters with the Vikings already locked into the NFC’s sixth playoff seed.
In many ways, the sculpted, even-tempered 6-5, 252-pounder is exactly what the NFL wants in a modern defensive player as it says goodbye to its rough-and-tumble first century while transitioning to a new, safer era that no longer tolerates uncontrolled violence.
“No question,” said Vikings defensive line coach Andre Patterson. “Danielle’s just trying to get the quarterback on the ground instead of trying to punish him. Over the years, the league has overly protected the quarterback. So it’s not about punishing the quarterback like it used to be taught back in the day.”
Hunter’s season high for penalties is two. His rookie year, when he got his one and only 15-yard personal foul.
“Oh, I remember that,” Hunter said. “I remember all my penalties.”
It was Week 17 at TCF Bank Stadium. The Vikings led the Bears 38-17 when quarterback Jay Cutler …
“Ran a zone read to the backside,” Hunter remembered this week. “He took the ball. I remember that play because he slid into my hand, actually. I was in position to make the tackle. He slid. I reached down to touch him down and my hand hit his facemask.”
It still irks the big fella. But since then, Hunter has been flagged four times for 17 yards. In 65 games.
“But the one this year was a bad call,” Hunter said of his 5-yarder for defensive holding at Detroit.
“He’s right,” said Patterson, standing next to Hunter. “He didn’t hold, but the guy sold it to the officials. If you watch the film, Danielle never reached out and grabbed the guy.”
Keeping it clean
All told, Hunter has two penalties for defensive holding, one neutral zone infraction, one illegal use of hands, one facemask and one illegal block above the waist.
“It’s amazing to me that he can go after the quarterback that many times and never get frustrated and want to take it out on the quarterback when he finally gets to him,” safety Anthony Harris said. “That tells me he not only knows how to do his job, he knows how to not make it personal and force things. He’s all business.”
Good example: Monday night’s 1-yard sack of Aaron Rodgers. He was scrambling near the right sideline when Hunter closed faster than Rodgers anticipated.
“I was thinking, ‘Just get to my angle’ because there’s a route that we always take whenever the quarterback is doing a boot,” Hunter said. “And another thing that’s going through my mind: That’s Rodgers. If you touch him wrong, you are going to get a penalty.”
That’s why Hunter put his hands up and didn’t lean forward as Rodgers bounced off him and fell.
“Rodgers will flop on you,” Patterson said.
“Yeah,” Hunter said. “He’s done it before.”
Not to pick on Everson Griffen, the Vikings’ other standout pass-rushing end, but for comparison’s sake, he has more penalties (seven) in 15 games this season than Hunter has in his entire career. In seven fewer games since 2015, Griffen has 24 more penalties and has been flagged 20 times for pre-snap violations.
“The key is putting your hands in the right spot and doing the simple things,” Hunter said. “It all comes down to the simple things, in my opinion.
“It’s all muscle memory. We practice so much in the offseason and in training camp to have our body and our hands being disciplined. Sometimes, you’re human. You can make mistakes. But most of the time, my game is just about doing the right thing.”
Making his moves
Patterson said Hunter has “an uncanny ability to get his body in the right position.” As for Hunter’s pre-snap discipline, Patterson said, “I got him early [age 20] and was able to teach him that you don’t listen to the quarterback.
“The guys who usually jump offsides have come up in this business being told to listen to the quarterback and try to get a jump off the snap count. If you do that, you’re going to fail.”
Zimmer credited the cleanliness of Hunter’s game to “outstanding athletic ability,” intelligence, hard work, the ability “to run like a deer” and the kind of flexibility that caused Patterson to tattoo Hunter with the nickname “Gumby.”
“Even in the running game, he can spin and bend,” Zimmer said. “He’s got those long arms, so he can use those levers that he has.”
Hunter laughs now when the boss mentions those long arms.
“I remember when I first came here,” said Hunter, who had 4 ½ sacks in three years at LSU. “Zim kept saying that if I didn’t use my arms, he was going to chop them off.”
Hunter also had one move coming out of college. He and the coaches now jokingly refer to it as Hunter’s “LSU move.”
“Run up the field,” Zimmer said, “and turn left.”
Times have changed. And then some.
“Me and Dre, we’ve been working day in and day out to make me the player that I am today,” Hunter said. “And we’re working continuously day in and day out to get better. I’m a pro athlete. As a pro athlete, you can’t be complacent.”
The NFL and the Associated Press introduced the NFL Defensive Player of the Year award in 1971. Vikings Hall of Famer Alan Page won the first one.
The honor has been bestowed 48 times to 38 players, including 21 Hall of Famers and eight who are not yet eligible for the Hall. Lawrence Taylor and J.J. Watt are the only three-time winners while Joe Greene, Mike Singletary, Bruce Smith, Reggie White, Ray Lewis and Aaron Donald have won it twice.
Hunter ranks third in sacks with 14½, which matches his career high. Other DPOY candidates who appear to have a leg up on him statistically are Cardinals defensive end Chandler Jones, Steelers outside linebacker T.J. Watt and Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore.
“The thing I love most about Hunter is he really plays hungry,” said former Vikings defensive tackle Keith Millard, the last Viking to win the award in 1989. “He’s probably going to need to be a 20-sack guy to win the thing, but I absolutely think he has the potential to do that someday. I mean he’s probably top three this year. So the sky’s the limit with this kid.”
“If he masters a couple more things,” Zimmer said, “he could be unstoppable.”
Meanwhile, Patterson, the man most responsible for spotting Hunter’s hidden potential coming out of LSU, is steadfast in his refusal to make predictions and comparisons when talking about Hunter.
“I don’t want to put a ceiling on him because the kid has not put a ceiling on himself, like most guys do,” Patterson said. “Just let him write the story. And the rest of us just enjoy the ride and see where he takes us.”