EAGAN, Minn. — Danielle Hunter is one of the most stoic and reserved players on the Vikings roster, as the defensive end usually displays a calm demeanor and seems to never raise his voice above a whisper.
But the 23-year-old’s emotions were in high gear Wednesday morning as he drove to Twin Cities Orthopedics Performance Center.
Hunter and the Vikings had agreed to a multi-year contract extension, which Hunter signed later that morning, a deal that keeps one of the NFL’s best young pass rushers in Minnesota for years to come.
“I was shaking with excitement,” Hunter told Vikings.com. “I was like, ‘Is this real?’
“My body was just doing it, and I didn’t even realize I was doing it coming in here,” Hunter added. “I feel like it’s an important day for my family and I, and the team. I’m really excited about it.”
Hunter, a third-round pick in 2015, has 25.5 sacks over the first three years of his professional career. That stat ranks first among all players who entered the league in 2015.
The Texas native had just 4.5 sacks during his three-year stay at LSU, but he has eclipsed that total in each of his first three seasons with the Vikings.
Hunter had 6.0 sacks as a rookie before setting his career high with 12.5 in 2016.
He scored his first NFL touchdown in the 2016 season opener when he returned a fumble 24 yards for a score. Hunter also recorded a safety when he sacked Panthers quarterback Cam Newton in the end zone in a Week 3 game in Carolina.
Hunter then helped the Vikings defense lead the league in points allowed, yards allowed and third-down percentage in 2017 as he racked up 7.0 sacks in his first full season as a starter.
“I came in with the mindset of just playing football,” Hunter said. “I had a whole bunch of people in front of me, older guys that were able to show me the way … and good coaches and a good coaching staff.
Best of Vikings Defensive End Danielle Hunter
View the best images from Vikings Defensive End Danielle Hunter's career in Minnesota.
“The only thing I could do was come in here and play football,” Hunter added.
He has 147 total tackles (according to coaches’ tally) with 36 tackles for loss, three forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries during his career.
Hunter is the second player from the 2015 draft class the Vikings have recently extended. Linebacker Eric Kendricks signed a multi-year extension in mid-April. Defensive end Everson Griffen, defensive tackle Linval Joseph, safety Harrison Smith and cornerback Xavier Rhodes have each also signed extensions over the past two years.
“We’ve built a bond together on defense,” Hunter said. “We go out there as brothers and fight together and do our assignments.
“On and off the field we’re really close, so this means a lot to me,” Hunter added.
Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman and Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer have watched Hunter grow from a raw rookie to a key piece of one of the league’s top defenses in recent years.
Both Zimmer and Spielman praised Hunter for his daily work ethic, commitment to the team and production on the field and character off the field.
“Pass rushers are a premium in this league, especially with the way offenses have developed,” Spielman said at a press conference. “I know we’re in [the] nickel [formation] almost 70 percent of the time right now, so you have to be able to rush the passer.”
Zimmer spoke to the Twin Cities media on a conference call and recalled a story from training camp in 2015, Hunter’s rookie season. Zimmer said former Cowboys defensive end Greg Ellis, whom Zimmer coached in Dallas, gave an honest and surprising take on Hunter.
“He said, ‘This guy is DeMarcus Ware.’ I said, ‘C’mon, you’re crazy,’ ” Zimmer said. “And the way that he’s progressed and improved and increased his strength and athletic ability has been really remarkable.”
Ware played for Dallas and Denver over his 12-year career and retired with 138.5 career sacks, which ranks eighth on the all-time list.
Before the extension, Hunter was about to enter the final year of his rookie contract. Hunter said it was important he and his agent got the deal done before training camp starts in late July.
But Hunter said there isn’t much that will change in terms of his approach to the game going forward.
“I just have to keep going out there and do my assignment and continue to do what the coaches tell me to do,” Hunter said. “Just continue to improve my game.
“But the main thing is to continue to be me and not be anybody else,” Hunter added.