Minnesota Vikings defensive end Danielle Hunter had played in 77 straight games and was figuring that streak would continue in 2020. Then came the first day of training camp on Aug. 14.
That was the day the two-time Pro Bowl selection hurt his neck. He didn’t practice or play the rest of 2020, and was officially ruled out for the season when he underwent surgery in October to repair a herniated disc.
But on Wednesday, Hunter said his neck injury has fully healed.
“Overall health, I feel 100 percent,” Hunter said in a Zoom call with reporters after the second day of a mandatory three-day minicamp at the TCO Performance Center in Eagan.
Hunter has not practiced during the minicamp and said he still needs to get into “football shape.” But he at least was back on the field after skipping organized team activities due to a contract issue.
Hunter’s contract was reworked Monday, clearing the way for him to report to minicamp. He will have $5.6 million of his $12.15 million base salary in 2021 paid in a signing bonus, although he won’t make any more money for the season. However, he has added an $18 million roster bonus to his 2022 salary; potentially due in March, it could make his salary that year about $20 million. That could result in about an $8 million increase.
“With the media, I don’t think I’ve ever discussed anything business-wise, so I’ll leave it at that,” said Hunter, who declined to talk about anything related to his contract in his first interview since April 2020. “I’m just eager to get back out there on the field. … I’m just very thankful I’m able to come back from whatever has happened and being able to have a second opportunity.”
Vikings coach Mike Zimmer didn’t go into any contract specifics but said it’s “big for our players” to have Hunter back.
“I know he wants to play football,” Zimmer said. “I saw him for the first time a couple days ago, and he came up and gave me a big hug. … 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 declined to provide any specifics on how he was hurt but said it was difficult sitting out the season.
“Being able to just sit there and watch and not being able to do anything to help my teammates and seeing what they’ve been going through, it was really tough,” he said. “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 that outcome that it had to be.”
After the surgery, Hunter said he communicated regularly with co-offensive coordinator and defensive line coach Andre Patterson and athletic trainer Eric Sugarman. He called the rehab “pretty simple” and said he was helped during the process by family members coming to the Twin Cities to cheer him up during the coronavirus pandemic.
“They were around to keep me up and kind of limit me from trying to do things I’m not supposed to and that kind of put happy vibes in my mind,” he said.
Hunter said he “learned a lot about my body” during the process. Now, he’s trying to get back into game 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,” he said.
Hunter, 26, has 54½ sacks in five NFL seasons, and in 2019 became, at 25, the youngest NFL player to reach 50 sacks. In both 2018 and 2019, he had 14 ½ sacks and made the Pro Bowl.
“My goal is to continue to improve and be the best player I can possible be for me and the team,’’ he said.
For now, Hunter’s coaches and teammates are thrilled to have him back.
“Danielle’s the best in the league,” said linebacker Eric Kendricks. “He missed all of last year, so I know inside he’s probably boiling and ready for that first snap.”