Defensive end Danielle Hunter emerged in his second pro season to grab a share of headlines for Minnesota's deep and dynamic defensive line.
Hunter recorded 12.5 sacks on the season, tying for third place in the league. He currently ranks second among all defensive ends from the 2015 draft class in total sacks (18.5), just behind first-round pick Vic Beasley (19.5) and ahead of second-round pick Preston Smith (13).
"To go from college, where he was a better athlete than most of the people he played against, to come do it at the highest level and two years later be a double-digit sack guy, that's a tremendous accomplishment by him," Vikings defensive line coach Andre Patterson said. "And it took a lot of hard work and a lot of dedication on his part to get it done."
Hunter made a number of big plays for Minnesota, including two scores. He recovered a Titans fumble and returned it for a touchdown in the season opener and two weeks later sacked Cam Newton for a safety at Carolina.
The Vikings utilized Hunter in a rotational role with starters Brian Robison and Everson Griffen.
Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer emphasized recently the value of the defensive line working together as a unit rather than prioritizing personal milestones.
"Everything we do is about the team. [Danielle's sacks], a lot of them are based because Everson Griffen had good rushes and allowed him to make plays, or Tom Johnson or B-Rob [Brian Robison]," Zimmer said. "I know everybody wants to get individual sacks, individual awards, because they get more recognition and all that kind of thing, but that's not what we're about here."
Griffen received his second consecutive Pro Bowl nod after his performance during the 2016 season. The seventh-year defensive end continued to wreak havoc on opposing offenses, finishing the season with 61 tackles (41 solo), 8.0 sacks, 10 tackles for loss, two forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries, including one for a touchdown in Minnesota's season finale.
Robison in 2015 embraced a slightly adjusted role on the line, sometimes moving inside for different looks on defense, and continued to do so in 2016. In his 10th season with the Vikings, Robison recorded 7.5 sacks, 36 quarterback hurries and three forced fumbles.
In his third season in purple, Linval Joseph continued to be an unstoppable force, albeit one that sometimes flew under the radar. Joseph anchored the defensive line in all 16 games and recorded 4.0 sacks after getting just one-half sack in 2015. The Vikings on rare occasions even utilized Joseph on offense; he lined up in the backfield on both of the Vikings goal-line touchdowns against the Lions on Nov. 6.
Defensive tackles Tom Johnson and Shamar Stephen played rotational roles for Minnesota, combining for 83 tackles (43 solo). Johnson ranked second on the Vikings in quarterback hurries tallied by coaches with 51 despite being placed on injured reserve after suffering a hamstring injury against the Colts in Week 15.
Toby Johnson spent the majority of the 2016 season on the practice squad but was active for Minnesota's final two games after Tom Johnson was sidelined. Toby played 23 defensive snaps for the Vikings and recorded two tackles.
Justin Trattou recorded two tackles and two quarterback hurries on defense in addition to contributing primarily on special teams.
Hunter's 12.5 sacks are the most of any Vikings player in a single season since Jared Allen notched 22 sacks during the 2011 season.
At 22 years old, Hunter is the youngest player to lead the Vikings in sacks since they became an official NFL stat in the 1982 season. The next youngest was Ray Edwards, who was 22 when he tied for a team lead with 5.0 sacks during the 2007 season. Keith Millard (1985) and Kevin Williams (2003) each led the Vikings in sacks as rookies at age 23.
With seven minutes left on the clock and a three-point lead, Robison helped thwart a Packers comeback attempt in the Vikings home opener.
On first-and-10 from the Vikings 45, Aaron Rodgers searched for an open receiver. Just as he wound up for a pass, Robison escaped the grip of tackle Bryan Bulaga, charged Rodgers from behind and knocked the ball from his grasp. Stephen capitalized on Robison's strip sack, fell on the loose ball and returned possession to the Vikings, who went on to defeat their division rival 17-14.
2016 Defensive Line Stats (tackles and quarterback hurries are coaches' tallies):
Everson Griffen61 tackles (41 solo), 10 tackles for loss, 8.0 sacks, 68 quarterback hurries, 2 forced fumbles, 3 fumble recoveries, 1 touchdown
Linval Joseph100 tackles (48 solo), 7 tackles for loss, 4.0 sacks, 36 quarterback hurries, 3 forced fumbles
Danielle Hunter64 tackles (34 solo), 14 tackles for loss, 12.5 sacks, 49 quarterback hurries, 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery, 1 pass defensed, 1 touchdown, 1 safety
Shamar Stephen57 tackles (27 solo), 1 tackle for loss, 10 quarterback hurries, 1 fumble recovery
Brian Robison34 tackles (22 solo), 12 tackles for loss, 7.5 sacks, 36 quarterback hurries, 3 forced fumbles, 1 pass defensed
Tom Johnson26 tackles (16 solo), 6 tackles for loss, 2.0 sacks, 51 quarterback hurries, 1 interception, 1 pass defensed
Toby Johnson2 tackles (2 solo)
Justin Trattou2 quarterback hurries
VIKINGS D-LINE TOTALS344 tackles (190 solo), 50 tackles for loss, 34 sacks, 252 quarterback hurries, 9 forced fumbles, 5 fumble recoveries, 1 interceptions, 3 passes defensed