Over the first three years of his career, Danielle Hunter has put himself in rare air as a pass rusher.
Before turning 24 years old, he’s produced 25.5 sacks. Only 18 players have produced 25 or more sacks through their age 24 seasons since 2000, so it came as no surprise when the Minnesota Vikings locked up Hunter to a five-year contract on Wednesday.
Because of Hunter’s age, the feeling around the team is that he’s still growing. Last year marked the first time he was an every-down player rather than a rotational pass rusher.
“I’m seeing things quicker, seeing things faster so my body just naturally reacts,” Hunter said. “My coach tells me that all the time: Sometimes you go out there and your body just naturally reacts, so that’s happening sometimes.”
But in his first season as a full-time defensive end, Hunter’s sack production dropped from 12.5 in 2016 to 7.0 in 2017.
Head coach Mike Zimmer has pointed out sack production can be inconsistent from year to year. It’s pressure that is more predictive of future success. To that end, a closer look at Hunter’s 2017 reveals he was still highly effective.
According to Pro Football Focus, Hunter ranked 20th in Pass Rush Productivity among 4-3 defensive ends, which is simply hits, hurries and sacks per rush. He produced some type of disruption on 10.0 percent of his rushes — a nearly identical number to his teammate Everson Griffen, who had 13.0 sacks.
Hunter was credited with the fifth most hurries among 4-3 DEs, trailing only Carlos Dunlap, Joey Bosa, DeMarcus Lawrence and Melvin Ingram III.
The impact of hurries is significant. As you can see here, every quarterback in the NFL has a worse passer rating when pressured.
In 2016, his Pass Rush Productivity was only slightly higher at 11.5 percent, suggesting that Hunter’s play did not dip nearly as much as his sack totals would suggest.
Combining his last two seasons, the most comparable player to Hunter in terms of PRP is New Orleans star rusher Cameron Jordan, who totaled 79 pressures in 2016 and 74 pressures last year.
What does recent history tell us about Hunter’s potential sack production? Below are the players who managed similar or better sack numbers than the Vikings’ former third-round pick during their first three seasons.
Players under the age of 24 from 2000 to 2017 in their first three seasons
|Player||Games||Sacks before age 24||Next five years…|
|Aldon Smith||43||42||5.5 total sacks (off-field issues)|
|Dwight Freeney||47||40||44 sacks in 70 games|
|Shawne Merriman||43||39.5||6.0 total sacks (injuries)|
|JJ Watt||48||36.5||39.5 sacks in 40 games|
|Von Miller||40||35||48.5 sacks in 64 games|
|Julius Peppers||44||30||51.0 sacks in 78 games|
|Jared Allen||47||27.5||77.5 sacks in 78 games|
|Justin Houston||43||26.5||43.0 sacks in 47 games|
|Andre Carter||46||25.5||27.0 sacks in 71 games|
|Robert Mathis||45||25.5||48.5 sacks in 74 games|
|Chandler Jones||40||23.5||40.5 sacks in 47 games|
|Osi Umenyiora||45||22.5||46.5 sacks in 68 games|
|Charles Johnson||48||21.5||42.0 sacks in 70 games|
|Cameron Jordan||48||21.5||38.0 sacks in 64 games|
|Olivier Vernon||48||21.5||22.5 sacks in 44 games|
|Jabaal Sheard||45||21||20.5 sacks in 60 games|
|Justin Smith||47||20||30.5 sacks in 80 games|
If we put Aldon Smith and Shawne Merriman aside for special circumstances, the average sack production of players with a similar start to their young careers as Hunter is 10.3 sacks per 16 games.
If Hunter is merely average among this outstanding group in sack production and continues to be among the most disruptive D-ends in the NFL, he will certainly be worth $14 million per year over the next five seasons, especially considering the Vikings’ window to win with their top-notch defense.