To count down the days until Vikings rookies, quarterbacks and select veterans report to Mankato on July 23, we will reveal our ranking of the 17 most important Vikings players heading into the 2017 season. Look for the next player on our list every weekday morning at Access Vikings.
This list, created by Matt Vensel and Andrew Krammer, is not a ranking of the best players on the team, though sheer talent is obviously an essential factor. It is a ranking of the players whose upcoming season will have the biggest impact on the franchise, whether it’s in 2017 or beyond.
Coming in at No. 4 on our list is defensive end Danielle Hunter.
The stage is set for Danielle Hunter to shine.
Hunter has seemingly supplanted Brian Robison at left defensive end, lining up with the starting defense throughout offseason practices. The promotion is warranted, even as Robison remains a reliable contributor at age 34.
That’s because the 22-year-old Hunter just became the youngest Vikings defender in franchise history to lead the team with 12.5 sacks, doing so as a part-time player with only 58 percent of the defensive snaps last season.
So more Hunter should mean more terror from the Vikings defensive line, which combined for 34 of the team’s 41 sacks a year ago.
One of Hunter’s more underrated strengths has been as a run defender in Mike Zimmer’s disciplined defensive scheme. Hunter’s length (6-foot-5) and improved hand placement gives him leverage against less athletic offensive linemen. He’s used that to his advantage so far and, with more playing time, should bolster a Vikings run defense that struggled at times in 2016.
Hunter’s importance to the Vikings extends beyond this season. His emergence should give the defense another solid bookend, opposite 29-year-old Everson Griffen, for years to come.
Griffen, like Hunter, was a part-time terror as a pass rusher before becoming a full-time player. Maintaining a high level of play as an every-down player is an evolution Griffen needed to embrace, and an obstacle Hunter will face this season.
But if Hunter’s ascension is any indication of his future, the Vikings should have little worry about their latest budding star on defense.
The Star Tribune’s ranking of the 17 most important Vikings in 2017:
4. Danielle Hunter, DE
5. Anthony Barr, LB
11. Trae Waynes, CB
16. Pat Elflein, C/G