Justin Jefferson returns, Danielle Hunter skips Vikings mandatory camp

The Minnesota Vikings started mandatory mini camp on Tuesday at TCO Performance Center in Eagan, and it largely came without drama.

Star wide receiver Justin Jefferson, who had been absent from all three weeks of organized team activities, emerged from the Vikings locker room and ran out to the practice field with a big smile on his face. It was his first offseason appearance at practice in Minnesota. He took part in individual drills and didn’t appear to lose a step.

"Very anxious. Love being around the guys, love being around the team. We want to win the Super Bowl this year, so good to be back with the team," Jefferson said.

Jefferson, who led the NFL in catches and receiving yards last season, and flirted with Calvin Johnson’s historic single-season mark, said he missed OTAs due to "a lot of stuff going on" with endorsements and events.

"They didn’t really force me to come back too much, so it didn’t seem like I was missing too much. They definitely wanted me back here, wanted to be back here but I had a lot of stuff going on," Jefferson said.

Kevin O’Connell and his teammates were happy to have the reigning NFL Offensive Player back on the practice field.

"I told him this morning you can just tell when he’s walking the halls in our building, just the energy and the juice that he brings. He’s in great shape moving around today, like I expected him to be," O’Connell said.

"It feels good man, I got about 10 less questions a day now. Asking me what Justin’s doing, what he ate for breakfast. It was good to have him out here, we’re all excited to have him out here," said receiver KJ Osborn, who has been the No. 1 receiver at OTAs without Jefferson.

The uncertainty now centers around keeping Jefferson in Minnesota long-term. He has two years left on his rookie contract, and it’s in the Vikings’ best interests to secure a new contract before the season. He could become the highest-paid receiver in the NFL.

Jefferson said his contract situation won’t affect his training camp, he’ll show up ready to play football in late July.

"Not really a cloud, I don’t really see it as a cloud hanging over my head. At the end of the day, I’m still going to be myself, still going to be playing the same way. The contract comes with the game, but my agent handles that, I don’t. I feel fresh," Jefferson said.

The same can’t be said, at least currently, for star edge rusher Danielle Hunter. He did not attend Tuesday’s practice, is subject to a fine from the NFL and missed out on a $100,000 work bonus. The 2015 draft pick out of LSU had 10.5 sacks last season, after two years marred by injuries, and is due just $5.5 million this season.

After the Vikings traded his edge rushing counterpart Za’Darius Smith earlier this offseason, they reportedly were taking calls on Hunter late last week.

"I don’t want to speak for Kwesi, but I feel very strongly about being solution-oriented with everything that comes about. This is an example just like a lot of the other ones that have come up, we’ll do the same," O’Connell said.

Hunter became the fastest player in NFL history to amass 50 career sacks in his first five seasons. He had 14.5 sacks in 2018 and 2019 before missing 2020 with a herniated disc in his neck that required surgery, and a torn pectoral muscle that ended his 2021 season after seven games. He was back healthy in 2022.

He’s seeking a new contract before getting back on the practice field, but for now, is holding out.

"We hope to have continued dialogue and have a really positive outcome. He’s played for the Vikings for a lot longer than I’ve been here. Whatever has kind of transpired over the years that helped form the current relationship, positive as it may be, my role is continuing to coach our team and try to help shape not only the roles for each player, Danielle Hunter included, but how it all comes together," O’Connell said.

The Vikings have one more workout Wednesday at TCO Performance Center in Eagan before departing for a six-week break. Training camp starts in late July.