Danielle Hunter is 'fresh,' healthy and a welcome sight for Vikings' defense

The Vikings' Danielle Hunter did some light work in individual drills but watched from the sideline during mandatory minicamp practice. Jim Mone/AP Photo

EAGAN, Minn. -- Ten months removed from the injury that caused him to miss the 2020 season, Minnesota Vikings defensive end Danielle Hunter puts his overall health at “100%,” but that doesn’t mean he’ll rush himself to get back on the field.

There’s a difference between being healthy and being in football shape. If anyone knows that, it’s Hunter, who has spent months rehabbing from October neck surgery to repair a herniated disc.

Hunter, who missed OTAs this spring, showed up to mandatory minicamp after the Vikings converted a reported $5.6 million of his $12.15 million 2021 base salary into a signing bonus. Aside from some light work in individual drills, Hunter watched from the sideline as Minnesota’s revamped defense went through practice.

“To get into football shape, that’s just something that you have to go back out on the field and take all the steps that you need to take and take all the hand placements that you need to take,” Hunter said. “Essentially just going out there and building back from the fundamentals that you need in order to play football. That’s how it’s going to be for everybody -- it’s not just me. But I’m going to take my time and just focus in and lock in on the all things that I used to do and continue to build off that.”

Hunter declined to specify how he was injured during a non-padded training camp practice on Aug. 14. What coach Mike Zimmer initially referred to as a “tweak” evolved into Hunter being placed on injured reserve four weeks later. Hunter exhausted all of his options and flew to New York for a second opinion before undergoing season-ending surgery.

“We were trying everything that we could possibly try for me to get back to the field the correct way, but it just ended up being the outcome that it had to be,” Hunter said. “After the surgery, I called and talked to all the coaches. I communicated with Coach [Andre] Patterson every week about what’s going on and what he thinks that he should do and what are my opinions and things.

“The rehab, it was pretty simple. I just continued my training. Coach Patterson called and checked up on me every now and then. Talked to [head athletic trainer Eric Sugarman] every week, and he would check up on me, but the main thing was just getting my health back to 100% and getting my training back, and I’m excited about that. I’ve been training for two years now. Pretty fresh, one year of football rest so I’m just ready to go.”

Hunter said he skipped OTAs because he wanted to “focus on my health” while getting himself “back to 100%.” In reworking his contract, the Vikings didn’t give Hunter any new money but worked in an $18 million roster bonus that goes into effect on the fifth day of the 2022 league year.

Essentially, if Hunter returns to his Pro Bowl form -- in 2019 he became the youngest player to reach 50.0 career sacks after back-to-back 14.5 sack seasons -- he and the Vikings could be back at the negotiating table next offseason to work out a long-term extension on his deal, which runs through 2023.

“I let the front office handle all that,” Zimmer said. “I know he wants to play football. I saw him for the first time a couple days ago, and he came up and gave me a big hug. So, it’s really hard to say. We weren’t sure that he was healthy until he came in and did his physical. He looks fantastic, and he should be ready to go.”

Hunter rejoins a Vikings defensive line that looks completely different than the last time he was on the field. Along with the return of nose tackle Michael Pierce, the Vikings signed defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson in free agency and brought back Sheldon Richardson this week to improve their interior pass rush. Who starts opposite Hunter at defensive end will be a key training camp position battle between the likes of Stephen Weatherly, D.J. Wonnum and rookie Patrick Jones II.

Learning the tendencies of who he’ll be playing with is one of Hunter’s top priorities when the Vikings reconvene for training camp next month, whenever he’s able to go through full practices. Many in the organization are eager to see Hunter back on the field in camp.

“Danielle’s the best in the league,” linebacker Eric Kendricks said. “I think we felt that, especially not even having him. But looking forward to seeing his progression coming into this year. I know he’s ready to play. He missed all of last year, so I know inside, he’s probably boiling and ready for that first snap."