EAGAN, Minn. — Danielle Hunter has racked up 25.5 sacks over his first three seasons in the NFL, evolving from a raw project to one of the top young pass rushers in the league.
In fact, Hunter’s sack total is tops among all players picked in the 2015 NFL Draft, where the former LSU defensive end was a third-round pick and went 88th overall.
As Hunter enters his fourth season with the Vikings — and second as a starter — he gave a little insight on his approach for the 2018 season. His main focus right now is turning off his brain and just playing freely.
Hunter believes if he does that, he might be able to make more plays.
“Everything just kind of happens naturally as a defensive end,” Hunter said. “That’s what [Vikings defensive line coach] Andre Patterson has told me. You go out there and you’ve done something so much that your body just starts to react to whatever you see.”
“Sometimes you can [set a guy up], but your body just can naturally do it sometimes,” Hunter later added. “Honestly, you go out there and do something and [you think,] ‘I didn’t even think about doing that.’ You just do it.”
Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer said as much about Hunter when the Vikings were wrapping up Organized Team Activity practices last week.
“I think the biggest thing from Danielle, and he’s had a great spring, I think the biggest thing with him is just cut it loose. Not think so much,” Zimmer said on June 5. “A lot of these young guys they have a tendency to think so much about what they should do or what they might do. His natural reactions are good enough.
“He’s worked extremely hard this offseason. He’s worked really hard so far this spring,” Zimmer said. “Him and [Riley] Reiff have been getting some good battles in there. So it’s been good.”
Earlier this week, Hunter described himself as a more fluid player. But he’s still one of the most eye-popping physical specimen on the Vikings roster.
Hunter is 6-foot-5, which is tied for the tallest height on Minnesota’s defensive line. He’s also listed at a shade above 250 pounds, which is among the lightest players on the line.
In short, it’s hard not to notice Hunter on the field. Fellow defensive end Brian Robison has seen it for a few years now.
“The same thing that has always jumped out to me — he’s a big, physical-looking guy,” Robison quipped. “But he’s learning the game more and more mentally, and I think that will help him physically do some more things on the field."
Hunter took over as a starter in 2017 and recorded 7.0 sacks to help the Vikings defense rank first in the league in yards allowed, points allowed and third-down defense.
The 23-year-old said he’s glad to just play his part.
“I’m thankful enough to be able to start with a great group of defensive guys that I’m playing with,” Hunter said. “It’s definitely something I’ve embraced and am thankful for.”
And if Hunter sticks to his plan of thinking less and reacting more, he could be in line for his best season yet.
“Once you start thinking, that’s when you slow down. A lot of pass rushers tend to overthink because they’re trying to be perfect,” Hunter said. “At my position, you’re not going to be perfect. The best thing about it is to go out there and continue to train and work on your technique, and your body will react.
“[I’m going to] continue to build. I’m young. I came in at 20 years old. I’m just going to continue to build,” Hunter added. “I have, hopefully if God lets it happen, hopefully a lot of years ahead of me to play football. Just growing and keep working.”