Danielle Hunter was considered a raw prospect when he entered his name into the 2015 NFL draft after registering 4.5 sacks during the latter two seasons of his three-year career at LSU. His ceiling and upside appeared limitless, backed by his athleticism and motor, but how far he'd take his talents depended on the fit of the system he landed in and the coaching staff responsible for molding him.
The summer ahead of Hunter's rookie season, Minnesota Vikings coach Mike Zimmer invited 12-year NFL veteran Greg Ellis to take in a practice at training camp. Zimmer was curious to hear what Ellis, a defensive end who played for him in Dallas, thought of this new crop of young talent -- particularly Hunter, the team's third-round pick. At the nudging of Minnesota linebackers coach Andre Patterson, Ellis gave his honest opinion.
"He said, 'This guy's DeMarcus Ware,'" Zimmer recalled.
Comparing Hunter to a nine-time Pro Bowler and Super Bowl champion seemed crazy, Zimmer thought, but the foreshadowing of the heights Hunter could reach left little in doubt.
How quickly success came Hunter's way, though, was something very few predicted.
On Wednesday, Minnesota awarded Hunter a five-year contract extension worth $72 million, with $40 million in guarantees. It comes just more than a month before training camp starts ahead of his fourth season. The move reflects the Vikings' aim to keep their core defensive pieces together and emphasizes the importance the franchise places on its pass-rushers.
Hunter is set to earn an average salary of $14.4 million per year after recording 25.5 sacks in his first three seasons. That's just shy of the yearly earnings of fellow defensive end Everson Griffen, who inked a four-year, $58 million extension with the Vikings last offseason, when he still had two years left on his existing deal.
"These guys are really hard to find," Zimmer said. "They're hard, and most of the time you have to get them very high in the draft. Coach Patterson and Coach [George] Edwards have done a great job in developing the guys that we have. That's kind of been one of our traits: Get these guys, and then develop them into better players. To have two dynamic rushers on the edge helps us inside with Linval [Joseph] and Sheldon [Richardson] hopefully, and hopefully those four guys, we get the rest of them going, we should continue to be good for a little while."
Minnesota has Hunter, who turns 24 in October, locked down through 2023. In five years, he'll be 28 years old -- very much on the cusp of his prime years.
There's a good chance Hunter would have commanded a much larger figure had he and his representation pushed off negotiations until after the 2018 season. If the defensive end reached double-digit sack numbers for the second time in his career, his earnings could have been much greater. The same might be true if he waited to see what type of deal Raiders outside linebacker Khalil Mack is able to get with his next contract.
If the Vikings had utilized the franchise tag on him next offseason, Hunter would have earned about $18 million for the 2019 season before working out a long-term deal.
The Vikings' choice to get Hunter's contract done ahead of linebacker Anthony Barr or wide receiver Stefon Diggs says as much about financials (Minnesota has just under $18 million on the salary cap) as it does the team's view on positional value.
The value of a pass-rusher is higher than that of a linebacker who doesn't have a ton of sacks. Since he got to the league in 2014, Barr's sack numbers have diminished each season, mostly due to his responsibilities dropping back into coverage and not being sent to get to the opposing quarterback. This spring might have foreshadowed a change in Barr's role on the defense. During mandatory minicamp, Barr saw ample time playing outside on the edge -- something he did a ton at UCLA (23.5 sacks between 2012-13).
Edge rushers in the NFL are at a premium. More often than not, they get paid a premium.
Hunter, who logged seven sacks last season after a career-high 12.5 in 2016, is a young pass-rusher on the verge of his prime. Physically speaking, he's a specimen with every trait desired to play the position well and for a long time: tall, long arms and elite speed off the edge.
"He's pretty perfect," Zimmer said with a laugh.
More important, he gets to the quarterback.
It's similar to the view the Vikings had of Griffen when they chose to extend him last July. These types of deals, the ones that are done early, often reap big rewards. Griffen logged a career year in 2017, with 13 sacks, bringing his eight-year total to 61.
"I think it's the type of character that these players are, that they're not guys that may be, and I don't want to call it, like, 'one-year wonders,' where they come in and do it their contract year," general manager Rick Spielman said. "These guys are coming in and taking to the coaching. They love to play the game, and they always want to work to get better. And even when they get these contracts and the contract extensions we've done in the past, it seems like those guys take it to the next step after they get these kinds of contracts. I think that's one, the coaching they're getting, and two, the type of guys that the passion of the game means something."
With Hunter and Griffen locked up, Minnesota has its defensive-line bookends through the 2022 season, not to mention nose tackle Joseph, who is under contract through the same year.
Getting Hunter an extension now keeps the franchise tag open for 2019. The Vikings will have to get creative if they plan to keep Barr and Diggs next year. Minnesota's current cap structure should allow for one more deal to get done ahead of training camp. The other might have to come via the tag in February or March.
Spielman said the Vikings are trying to keep both Barr and Diggs. Whether they can do that financially is a different story. In the case of Hunter, Minnesota got a steal. Three years ago, the Vikings swung big, trading up to land the promising defensive end.
So far, that promise has paid off. Not every defensive end who comes to the Vikings via the draft is going to bring what Hunter did in the early part of his career. But when Minnesota finds a player who does, the franchise showed it will do whatever it can to keep him as long as it can.