MINNEAPOLIS - It was the elephant in the room at TCO Performance Center, up until about 24 hours before mandatory minicamp would start at TCO Performance Center for the Minnesota Vikings.
Would star defensive end Danielle Hunter show up? Hunter missed last season with a neck injury, and for months reports had been out that he’s not happy about his contract. A day before minicamp, the Vikings agreed to a re-worked contract with Hunter for the 2021 season. He is reportedly getting $5.6 million in 2021 as a signing bonus.
He has the potential to earn up to $18 million with a signing bonus due on the fifth day of the 2022 league year, leaving the Vikings a decision to make a year from now. If he does his part and stays healthy, that decision should not be tough to make.
Speaking to reporters Wednesday for the first time since returning to the Twin Cities, Hunter declined to discuss the neck injury that forced him to miss the 2020 season, and his contract situation.
"I don’t think I’ve ever discussed anything business-wise (with the media), so I’ll leave it at that. I’m happy to be back and I’m ready to go, I’m just eager to get back out there on the field," Hunter said.
His coaches and teammates were happy to see him at the facility, and at the first day of mandatory minicamp. Hunter did not practice Tuesday or Wednesday, mostly standing and watching practice from the sideline. He got more money for the 2021 season, avoid a fine of more than $90,000 for missing a mandatory minicamp and the Vikings have their star edge rusher back for the 2021 season.
"I let the front office handle all that. 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," Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said. "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. All the other stuff, the money part and the contract, that’s out of my pay grade."
Hunter was not at the Vikings’ organized team activities, which are voluntary, saying he was strictly focused on getting himself 100 percent healthy. Hunter suffered an injury days into training camp last season, which Zimmer called a "tweak" at the time.
It turned into having season-ending surgery for a herniated disc in his neck. He had to sit and watch while his defensive teammates went down with various injuries, and they struggled to a 7-9 season.
"It was really hard. Being able to just sit there and watch, and not be able to do anything to help my teammates and see what we’ve been going through, it was really tough," Hunter said. "We were trying everything that we could 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."
It’s hard for the Vikings to say what they have in Hunter until he goes through a full practice and delivers his first hit. He had become a dominant force on the defensive line, getting 14.5 sacks in 2018 and 2019, and becoming the fastest player in NFL history to at least 50 career sacks in his first five seasons.
He currently sits at 54.5, and is a match-up nightmare for opposing offenses.
"Danielle is the best in the league. I think we felt that, especially not even having him. 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," linebacker Eric Kendricks said.
"Everybody’s got their own side of the business side going on, so as a player definitely respect that. Also very happy to have Danielle back, he’s a tough guy to replace. He’s a game-wrecker for us. You want a guy like that in your locker room," safety Harrison Smith said.
Hunter is one of the key pieces of a completely revamped defense for the 2021 season, one that very well could save Zimmer’s job. Hunter joins a group that includes Dalvin Tomlinson, Michael Pierce, Sheldon Richardson, Kendricks, Anthony Barr, Smith, Patrick Peterson, Bashaud Breeland, Mackensie Alexander, Cam Dantzler and Xavier Woods.
Zimmer’s defense could feature as many as eight new starters in 2021. Hunter was excited to see the new faces this week, and has simple goals for the season.
"My goal is to continue to improve to be the best player that I can possibly be for me and the team. Whatever they tell me to do, I’ll always do it. I’ve always done everything the Minnesota Vikings have ever asked me to do. I don’t see myself stopping from doing whatever they tell me to do," Hunter said.
He also feels lucky to just be back on a football field. Neck injuries are nothing to mess with.
"I’m just very thankful that I’m able to come back from whatever has happened, being able to have a second opportunity going back on the field. Being thankful for all these kids that are in school, because of them, it’s the reason why I’m here right now," Hunter said. "Them getting their education is why today’s sports medicine is the reason why I’m able to have the surgery in order for me to get back on the field."
Hunter and the Vikings hope it stays that way, and not just for 2021.