Danielle Hunter’s impact on Vikings defense is staggering

December 23, 2019; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings defensive end Danielle Hunter. Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports.

Minnesota Vikings EDGE rusher Danielle Hunter has played in just 19% of the team’s football games since the start of 2020. When he’s on the field, Minnesota‘s defense is among the best in the game. NFL. During games that Hunter is not in, well, the team descends into grill hell.

Of course, when Hunter started missing games with a neck injury in 2020, the team was also struggling with departures from defensive staples like Everson Griffen, Linval Joseph, Xavier Rhodes and Trae Waynes. So, indeed, the 2020 cliff that Minnesota jumped defensively is in some way attributable to those exoduses.

Still, the Vikings defense was incredibly dominant from the time Hunter joined the team until his injuries hit.

Consider the first five seasons of his career (2015-2019) versus the 2020 regular season (Hunter was out all of 2020) on a stand-alone basis, per EPA/Defensive Play:

EPA/defensive play,
Vikings NFL Rankings,

2015-2019: 1st in NFL
2020: 25th in NFL

Danielle Hunter
December 17, 2017; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Vikings defensive lineman Danielle Hunter. Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports.

If you’re not a fan of defensive analytic numbers, the trend continues via the authorized points:

Points allowed
Vikings NFL Rankings,

2015-2019: 2nd in NFL
2020: 29th in the NFL

The variance was also visible in 2021. Hunter was available for the first eight weeks of the season before tearing his pectoral muscle against the Dallas Cowboys at US Bank Stadium on October 31. Just like the 2015-2019 vs. 2020 collapse, Minnesota’s defense headed south.

EPA/defensive play,
Vikings NFL Rankings,

With Hunter: 6th in NFL
Without Hunter: 23rd in NFL

Danielle Hunter
February 10, 2015; Scottsdale, Arizona, USA; LSU Tigers defensive end Danielle Hunter. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Unsurprisingly, the points allowed metric followed suit for 2021:

authorized points,
Vikings NFL Rankings,

With Hunter: 13th in the NFL
Without Hunter: 29th in the NFL

Fortunately, the Vikings should have a different fate this season for two reasons:

  1. Hunter is back with an impeccable bill of health, even saying this offseason that recovering from a torn pectoral muscle wasn’t as daunting as the neck injury.
  2. If he Is getting injured again, Minnesota signed Za’Darius Smith this offseason, so the cliff-diving prognosis shouldn’t be so damning.

Additionally, new defensive brains are in charge of the team, as the Vikings pivot to a 3-4 defense for only the second time in team history. Ed Donatell, of recent Chicago Bears and Denver Broncos fame, takes charge of the 2022 defense.

Overall, if Hunter is on the field, the Vikings’ defense is fierce, and in stretches without the LSU alum, the team’s production is downright disreputable.

Dustin Baker is a political scientist who graduated from the University of Minnesota in 2007. Subscribe to his daily YouTube channel, VikesNow. He host a podcast with Bryant McKinnie, airing every Wednesday with Raun Saw and Sally from Minneapolis. His Viking fandom dates back to 1996. Guilty pleasures listed: Peanut Butter Ice Cream, “The Sopranos” and The Doors (the band).


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