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In just four years, Danielle Hunter has grown from a raw third-round pick to one of the best defensive players in the NFL.
And there are some who believe he is the engine that makes the Vikings defense go.
Daniel Jeremiah and Bucky Brooks of NFL.com recently went through each NFL roster on their “Move The Sticks” podcast and picked out the most irreplaceable player on each team, landing on the 24-year-old defensive end in Minnesota.
Brooks had plenty of praise for Hunter, who set a career high with 14.5 sacks in 2018 and was named to his first Pro Bowl.
“Danielle Hunter has grown and emerged as more than just a complimentary rusher,” Brooks said. “He can get to the quarterback against anybody. I like Danielle Hunter. I think he’s a very, very valuable piece.”
Hunter was a third-round pick by the Vikings in 2015 after he had just 4.5 career sacks at LSU.
The soft-spoken defensive end recorded 6.0 sacks as a rookie before doubling that with 12.5 in 2016. He had 7.0 sacks in 2017 before recording the best season of his career in 2018.
Although Hunter was the pick for Jeremiah and Brooks, Jeremiah said it wasn’t an easy decision when looking at Minnesota’s defense.
“This was a team, I would say, was one of the more difficult ones to come up with, just because Xavier Rhodes would be a tough one for them to replace,” Jeremiah said. “You look at the safety position, and Harrison Smith would be a tough one to replace.
“You’ve still got Everson Griffen … but to me, Danielle Hunter is that guy,” Jeremiah added. “That’s a good-looking roster on paper, no doubt.”
4 Vikings projected to be top 100 players in 2019
If the Vikings want to get back to the postseason after missing out in 2018, they will likely need contributions up and down the roster.
But they will also rely on top-level talent, of which there is plenty.
A panel of more than 40 ESPN experts recently compiled a list of the projected top 100 players in the league for 2019, with four Vikings getting recognized.
Vikings wide receiver Adam Thielen was the highest-ranked Viking at No. 28. He had made back-to-back Pro Bowls with 100-plus catches and more than 1,000 receiving yards in 2017 and 2018.
ESPN Vikings beat reporter Courtney Cronin wrote:
Thielen has one of the NFL's highest contested catch rates and makes adjusting to underthrown balls look easy. He's in the category of elite wide receivers because of how difficult he is to cover, thanks to his ability to make every route look the same at the line of scrimmage until it isn't.
Hunter was the 59th-ranked player on the list. He has 40.0 career sacks in his first four seasons in the league.
After a career-high 14.5 sacks last season, the 24-year-old pass-rusher is just starting to get into his prime. Nicknamed "Gumby" for his ability to bend, lean and contort his 6-foot-5, 252-pound frame in unorthodox ways to get around tackles, Hunter has cemented himself as a rising star defensive end and nightmare for QBs.
Stefon Diggs was No. 64 on ESPN’s list after the wide receiver recorded the first 100-catch, 1,000-yard season of his career in 2018.
Diggs reached career highs in receptions (102), yards (1,021) and touchdowns (nine) in 2018 and is a lightning force opposite Adam Thielen. Diggs had double-digit targets in nine games last season and emerged as Kirk Cousins' preferred weapon the final three games of 2018 with a new offensive coordinator, which might carry over to this season.
Harrison Smith rounded out the group of Minnesota players, as the versatile Vikings safety was ranked 67th.
One of the league's hardest-hitting safeties, Smith tied a career high with three sacks and set a career best with nine TFLs in 2018. Oddly enough, it was considered somewhat of a down year for Smith, who is the cornerstone of the Vikings' defense and a four-time Pro Bowler who is etched in the elite category at his position.
Chicago led the division with five players on the list. Green Bay had three players listed, and Detroit had one.
NFL Kickoff | We Ready
The kickoff for #NFL100 is here and we only have two words - WE READY! Don't miss the season opener Green Bay Packers taking on the Chicago Bears on Thursday, September 9th at 7:20 PM CT