It’s no secret that the Vikings’ playoff hopes and performance so far fall squarely on the shoulders of the defense, who started the year hot and kept them in games even when the offense sputtered. Key to that defensive performance has been depth, and not just because of injuries to players like Sharrif Floyd and Xavier Rhodes.
The regular rotation of players along the defensive line can be a decisive factor in generating pressure and creating pressure packages. In 2015, Denver featured Von Miller and Demarcus Ware on the edge with Shaquil Barrett and Shane Ray rotating in. In 2013, Seattle highlighted the talents of Chris Clemons, Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett.
The fewest points allowed since 2005 belongs to the 2006 Ravens, who had Jarrett Johnson rotating in with four pressure premier producers in Terrell Suggs, Adalius Thomas, Bart Scott and Trevor Pryce. Lawrence Timmons was a backup in Pittsburgh’s 2008 Super Bowl season behind James Harrison and Lamar Woodley.
It’s not a universal feature of high-level defenses, but it’s a common thread. For the Vikings, that rotational player is Danielle Hunter, an athletic phenom who was drafted in the third round as a raw ball of potential and has already returned the faith the Vikings have shown in him.
A lot has been written on his athletic potential, but not much has been written about his demonstrated talent, already on display in the NFL.
Statistically, his time as a role player has been among the more dominant in the NFL. We can look at two measures: pressure rate and stop rate. Pressure rate is what it sounds like; how often a player pressures the quarterback when they rush the passer.
Because passers tend to throw worse under pressure (their passer rating, on average, drops more than 30 points when pressured vs. unpressured), this is almost as valuable as generating sacks and useful for predicting future sacks.
Stop rate is just a measure of quality tackles in the running game, where a player is credited with a stop every time a tackle against the run results in the offense not accomplishing its basic goals according to down and distance.
The benefit of both of these measures is that they are not generally zero-sum. That is, if a player creates pressure, he is not taking pressure away from someone else. If he generates a stop, that player is probably the only player to have been in a position to tackle someone for a loss.
That’s not quite true of other statistics like target percentage or total tackles; almost always someone will be targeted or tackled, so a player earning one of those statistics will take one away from another player and so may not have helped their team all that much because of that statistic.
Typically, athletic players like Hunter who don’t have much technical refinement are regarded as pure pass-rushers; they have to learn to adapt to defending the run. Hunter is unique in that his primary responsibilities at LSU were to defend the run first and rush the passer second, so his development curve is already different.
This has made for an excellent all-around defensive end whose contributions have immediately shown up in both elements of play.
Edge defenders have produced pressure on 11.2 percent of snaps so far this year, on average, and the 32 who have received the most snaps averaged a pressure rate of 12.1 percent.
Danielle Hunter is doing even better than that, and ranks 19th of the 111 edge rushers with at least 200 snaps, 15th of the 76 edge rushers with at least 300 snaps and tenth of the 53 edge rushers with at least 400 snaps (Hunter has 407 snaps this season).
With 14.2 percent of his pass rushes converting into pressure, he’d rank fifth in total pressures if he had had as many pass-rushing snaps as Everson Griffen (and his rate held up). Griffen himself ranks seventh, so he’s no slacker.
Hunter’s rate of pressure is higher than that of Brian Orakpo, Cameron Jordan, Nick Perry, Chris Long, Vic Beasley and fellow Viking Everson Griffen—and just about as much pressure as Jamie Collins and Cliff Avril.
What’s even more astonishing is his run defense.
Typically, edge rushers don’t have fantastic stop rates; interior players and linebackers are generally schemed to generate run losses while defensive ends “set the edge” on those plays to funnel runs inside.
The average stop rate among edge rushers is 7.4 percent, which is to say that on running snaps, edge players will be involved in a tackle that puts the offense behind schedule. For interior defensive linemen, that average is closer to 8.5 percent and for linebackers, it’s at 10.0 percent.
The best run defenders on the edge generally get a stop on a little less 14 percent of their run snaps (or about twice the average), while the worst ones only grab stops on three percent of their running snaps.
Hunter once again beats the NFL average at his position, grabbing a run stop rate of 11.4 percent, the seventh-best score of the 76 edge rushers with 300 total snaps and fourth among those with at least 400 total snaps this year.
His performance among the best at his position along two different axes is, by definition, pretty uncommon and extremely encouraging. If one measures how far from average each edge rusher is in both statistics and normalizes it for distribution, then one can get a good approximation for how productive they are.
In this case, I used a version of baseball’s “plus” metrics, where 100 is average, and every 15 above or below that number represents one standard deviation away from the average. So a player who scored a 115 would be one standard deviation above the average and therefore in the 84th percentile of players in that metric.
Here are the top players in that score:
|Name||Team||Pressure Grade||Stop Grade||Total Grade|
The “total grade” isn’t an average of the two scores, but weighted to cover the fact that edge rushers typically see 61 percent of their snaps as pass-rushers and only 39 percent as run defenders.
This isn’t a complete way to evaluate edge players. Knowing how they got that pressure, who enabled the stops and how often they convert sacks is important. As is knowing who they line up against. But the fact that Hunter has the eighth best stop rate of all of those edge players is astounding.
Not only that, he’s consistent in a way that Cameron Wake or Michael Bennett haven’t been this year, with success as a pass rusher and run defender.
The top player in this metric, Brandon Graham, is Pro Football Focus’ fifth-highest graded edge defender and has an elite 90.0 grade by them. He is also Bleacher Report’s top 4-3 defensive end at the midpoint of the season.
His path might be encouraging for Hunter; a rotational rusher for the Eagles for quite some time, he logged these kinds of numbers early in his year—in fact, his 2012 grade of 132.1 (on a disqualifying number of snaps) would have ranked first this year.
Among the relatively late bloomers at defensive end—players like Justin Houston and Everson Griffen—the results as rotational rusher have been average to positive. Danielle Hunter’s ability as a situational pass-rusher has so far exceeded even the best-case scenarios for raw, young talent.
Hunter’s sacks this year have been a little bit lucky; he’s been able to clean up on pressure generated by other defensive linemen and also has benefited more from coverage sacks than the other defensive linemen—but his sacks his rookie year were not, and most of his non-sack pressure this year has been created on his own. Both of those facts speak to the sustainability of his play, as does the variety of styles in which he’s made sacks.
So far, this year, his sacks have come on power moves where he rushes through the player opposite him. In his rookie year, we saw more speed rushes. You’ll see both below:
Not only that, his run defense in general has been stellar. In fact, his most impressive play this year came on run defense, not as a pass-rusher:
Not only that, this tackle for no gain looks a lot like what he did at LSU and speaks more to his pass-rushing future potential than some of his actual pass-rushing snaps do:
All in all, the Vikings have found themselves a gem in Danielle Hunter, and through two years he’s shown enough for fans to be confident he’s a top-tier defensive end in the near future. Hunter hasn’t just shown potential, but real, on-field talent. As a raw second-year player, he’s proving to be a vital cog in the defense.