NFL draft diamond in the rough: How the Vikings landed Danielle Hunter
EAGAN, Minn. -- Little-known college football player Danielle Hunter was waiting optimistically by his phone when he finally realized the call he was hoping for wouldn’t be coming that night.
And he was OK with that. He knew what he looked like on paper. The 6-foot-5, 255-pound defensive end managed just one sack during his final season at LSU, and because of that, the 20-year-old was viewed as a project player more than anything else. If anything, this would serve as extra motivation to prove the doubters wrong.
Then his phone rang. It was Vikings general manager Rick Spielman on the other end. He saw Hunter’s athletic ability, not his one sack during the previous season.
“You ready to be a Minnesota Viking?” Spielman asked Hunter. “You’re the type of player we’re trying to build this roster with.”
Spielman then passed the phone to Vikings coach Mike Zimmer, who passed the phone to defensive coordinator George Edwards, who passed the phone to defensive line coach Andre Patterson.
Each conversation was brief, no more than 30 seconds, though Hunter made his intentions abundantly clear.
“I told them I was going to give them my all,” Hunter said. “I’m still giving them my all to this day.”
As time has passed since that fateful night, Hunter has followed through on the promise, emerging as a legitimate superstar.
Coming off a season in which he recorded a career-high 14 1/2 sacks, Hunter is a best-case example of how Spielman has been able to find diamonds in the rough during his tenure with the Vikings. He has made a habit of finding tons of value toward the middle of the draft, picking up Hunter, wide receiver Stefon Diggs and defensive end Stephen Weatherly after so many other teams passed on them.
No doubt Spielman is hoping to continue that success during the 2019 NFL Draft, which runs Thursday through Saturday, April 25-27, in Nashville, Tenn.
Meanwhile, Hunter continues to work on honing his craft, something he’s done a lot of since turning pro four years ago. He has been like a sponge learning from the veterans on the defensive line, like Everson Griffen and Linval Joseph, which explains how he has gone from a rotational player to impact player in no time flat.
“It’s all about being a student of the game,” Hunter said. “Just going out there and trying to get better and better. Just listening to the people ahead of me. Even if I’m at the top, don’t try to act like I know everything. Just continue to learn more and more.”
His improved technique is evident on the field. While he used to rely on his raw athleticism off the edge, Hunter has become more of a tactician over the past few seasons, using his hand placement to shed would-be blockers with relative ease.
“I know that guys last a long time in the league because they’re technicians,” Hunter said. “You come into the league and are somewhat athletic. You get older and older and it fades away. As long as I’m a technician, I’ll be able to put up the same numbers that I’ve put up.”
With those numbers on the field has come increased recognition off the field, though Hunter has made it a point not to let it get to his head.
“Everything is the same,” Hunter said with a smile. “Enjoy my family and my teammates. Talk to my parents every day. I’m just a happy dude.”
Still, every so often Hunter lets himself take a step back and realize how much his life has changed since that tense Friday night spent waiting by his phone.
“It was me and (safety) Anthony Harris hanging out the other day, and we were talking about how it’s crazy that it’s Year 5 already,” Hunter said. “Looking back at how we used to be, he used to be my roommate, and how we used to just go home every day and just look at film, and just think, ‘Man, we’ve got to make this team.’
“We were just sitting down and thinking about that,” Hunter added. “We focused on what we needed to focus on. We didn’t do anything bad off the field. It’s as simple as that. You just come in and focus, and everything will take care of itself.”
Draft hits, misses
Rick Spielman took over as the general manager of the Vikings in 2012. Since then, he has built a solid roster through the NFL draft, with some notable hits and some glaring misses.
2012: Harrison Smith (No. 29 overall). He has become the heart and soul of the defense, and will go down as one of the best safeties in franchise history.
2013: Xavier Rhodes (No. 25 overall). The cornerback has the innate ability to eliminated a side of the field, though he needs to bounce back after struggling last season.
2014: Anthony Barr (No. 9 overall). The linebacker has been a starter since Day One, taking care of so many things in Mike Zimmer’s defense that go unnoticed.
2015: Danielle Hunter (No. 88 overall). The defensive end has developed into a legitimate star pass rusher in the league.
2015: Stefon Diggs (No. 146 overall). The receiver might be the pick that has yield the most value; it’s not often when a fifth-rounder turns into one of the best players in the league at his position.
2012: Matt Kalil (No. 4 overall). The left tackle had one solid season, but never figured out how to keep the ball rolling.
2013: Sharif Floyd (No. 23 overall). The defensive tackle got the short end of the stick when a knee injury and a botched surgery prematurely ended his career.
2014: Scott Crichton (No. 72 overall). The defensive end lacked elite measurables coming out of college, then never panned out at the next level.
2016: Laquon Treadwell (No. 23 overall). The receiver out of Mississippi has been nothing short of disaster since arriving in town and is currently on his last leg entering next season.
2018: Daniel Carlson (No. 167 overall). The place-kicker was cut after melting down in Week 2 of last season.