If there is a primary reason to believe the Vikings’ long-term future still looks bright, it is the organization’s young and talented defensive core — coached up by a scheme put in place by Mike Zimmer.
Even if some defensive leaks were a sneaky reason for the Vikings’ tumble from 5-0 to 8-8, this side of the ball still is stocked with enough playmakers to form the team’s identity.
That said, some of the players that we might tend to still think of as “young” don’t exactly fit that category. Star safety Harrison Smith, for instance, will be 28 next month. Top corner Xavier Rhodes will be 27 before the start of next season.
Still, the Vikings have spent tons of high draft picks on defense in recent seasons. Since 2014, linebackers Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks and corners Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander have all been chosen in the top two rounds.
All of them are under the age of 25. But none of them made a recent Pro Football Focus list of the top 25 current NFL players under that age.
Defensive end Danielle Hunter — a third-round pick in 2015 — did.
Hunter, who is still just 22, came in at No. 24 on the list. He’s the only Viking who did.
With Hunter coming off a 12½ sack season, that probably shouldn’t be surprising. But it’s also another reminder that we might need to adjust how we think of Hunter.
He’s no longer a plucky surprise. And he very well might be the best young player on the Vikings.
That says a lot about Hunter, of course. Even as a situational player who ceded time to veteran starter Brian Robison in 2016, Hunter’s talent and production were on display.
Evidence suggests he could be primed for an even bigger role (and bigger numbers) in his third season.
It also says a lot about the Vikings’ other young players, though, that none of them are on the top 25 list.
As recently as six months ago, it wouldn’t have been surprising to see Barr (24), Kendricks (24) or QB Teddy Bridgewater (24) on the list.
Waynes (24), Alexander (23) and wideout Stefon Diggs (23) also might have been candidates based on potential, pedigree, production or some combination thereof.
Barr, however, had a lackluster 2016 season after being a major playmaker his first two years. Bridgewater’s career was derailed by a major injury. Waynes and Alexander still have a lot to prove.
Kendricks and Diggs were key players for the Vikings this year and have bright futures, but if you look at the list and compare those two players to the rest of the top 25 (including Hunter), it doesn’t seem like an oversight or injustice that they were left off.
Of course, even with Pro Football Focus’ grading methods and other metrics, any top 25 list is going to be subjective.
The ultimate conclusion is this: it’s not surprising the Vikings have a defensive player on the list. Based on what we thought we knew coming into 2016, though, the identity of the player on the list is a surprise.