EAGAN, Minn. — The question — whether Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman sensed that Danielle Hunter would get to this level this fast? — was timely.
It was posed Tuesday when Spielman held his annual bye week session with reporters, the day before Danielle Hunter was named **NFC Defensive Player of the Week** for his outstanding performance against the Lions.
Hunter returned a fumble 32 yards for a touchdown to put away Detroit and recorded a career-best 3.5 sacks to help Minnesota set a franchise record with 10 sacks.
Spielman's answer shed a little light on how he and the personnel department are approaching an era of increasing information about prospects. It is lengthy but insightful.
"You're hoping you have more Danielle Hunter successes than you do on the misses that you have. I think that the system we have in place right now and the cohesiveness with the coaching staff, and if you look at the defensive line, for the most part, they almost look identical – you know, Stephen Weatherly – well, Danielle's a freak. But a lot of those guys, even some of the guys that we just drafted this year that got hurt or are on IR, there's certain physical traits and certain traits from a character standpoint that we look for.
It's funny, our analytics department is evolving right now to the point where we're almost able to clone players. Not literally, or else you'd see 90 Danielle Hunters walking around, although he can't throw a football worth a crap. But what we're doing with all, especially with the analytics, is with all this data we have now from psychological scores, the three different intelligence scores that we use – the stuff that we do to try to measure passion for the game, all the physical scores. The stats from college are maybe the least thing that we look at, except certain portions of those.
When you can take all that, they throw it into all their different algorithms they come up with, so now we're getting to the point, well, when we look at the draft this year … and we're looking at Player A, B or C, I want them to tell us, 'Who is he most similar to on our team from all those other scores besides what we grade on the tape?' We keep it separate. I keep it separate from what we see on the tape from a grade standpoint, and then I have the analytics do their deal, and then we combine it all and we get ready for the draft.
"Everybody, hopefully, that you're drafting has the physical ability, and I've always been intrigued with athletes, and I've always taken chances on athletes," Spielman continued. "Now if you can come up with the numbers and stuff that say, 'Well this is his mental makeup,' and we're always trying to measure this and this (points to head and heart). Because that's what makes the difference to me in this league. We're getting closer and closer to trying to be able to create some measurements that give us an idea what this and this (head and heart) means. Because like I said, Danielle Hunter may not be the player he is if he doesn't have the mental makeup that he has, always wanting to get better and a passion for the game, and what he plays with. So how can I find that combination, and how can we apply it going forward?
In 38 college games at LSU, Hunter totaled 4.5 sacks and 21 tackles for loss, but the Vikings saw tremendous upside in Hunter when they tabbed him with the 88th overall pick in the third round of the 2015 NFL Draft.
In 55 games with the Vikings (26 starts), Hunter has 37 sacks.
Spielman also noted that there are specific stats that the Vikings personnel department looks at for each position.
"But all that stuff that we're doing is basically, we're utilizing it as a tiebreaker," he said. "I'm not going to take a guy that we think, off the tape and what we've evaluated, is a seventh-rounder, and then our guys are coming back and saying, 'Well, this guy's a first-rounder here.' He's still a seventh-rounder."
Spielman noted the importance that unheralded or even undrafted players have had on the Vikings, from Adam Thielen to C.J. Ham to Marcus Sherels and, on Sunday, rookie Chad Beebe.
"We've been having some success in the later rounds and college free agency because I said that was a point of emphasis for me personally over three or four years, to prove that, and I think we have tremendously," Spielman said. "I mean, you watch Beebe on Sunday – well, he's the fourth guy on a 53-man roster that didn't even have a contract after the draft, and he got signed out of the tryout camp just like Thielen, C.J. Ham and Marcus Sherels did. So if we can continue to keep developing how we're doing things and keep evolving it to try to identify guys like that, hopefully that will help us continue to have a competitive roster [with some players] that people maybe have not heard of before."