Star defensive end Danielle Hunter will miss at least the first three games of the 2020 season after the Vikings placed him on injured reserve Wednesday, just four days before Sunday’s season opener against the Packers.
Hunter, according to an ESPN report, is dealing with a neck injury. Head coach Mike Zimmer has downplayed the injury since it first sidelined Hunter on Aug. 16, calling it “a tweak.”
This season, players on injured reserve can return to practice after three weeks instead of eight. That means Hunter could be back at practice as early as Monday, Sept. 28, and play a game as early as Oct. 4 in Houston.
But there’s no guarantee Hunter will be ready by then, having participated in only a few practices during a training camp that was already abbreviated by the coronavirus pandemic.
“It’s going to be hard to replace a guy like that,” linebacker Eric Kendricks said Wednesday, “but we have guys who are hungry and want to step up, too.”
Ifeadi Odenigbo is next up in Hunter’s spot, and the Vikings’ trade with the Jaguars for defensive end Yannick Ngakoue on Aug. 30 comes into clearer focus.
It’s difficult to overstate the impact of Hunter’s absence. He already set top-tier standards for production and durability, last season becoming the youngest player in NFL history to reach 50 sacks (54.5 sacks in five seasons).
Zimmer has spoken to the importance of a pass rush helping the Vikings’ young cornerbacks, and they’ll be tested early against Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers during Sunday’s opener.
Hunter will also miss at least Sept. 20 in Indianapolis and Sept. 27 vs. Tennessee.
Hunter, who turns 26 next month, is part of the star power Zimmer touted this offseason when asked about maintaining a strong defense while retooling parts of the roster. Losing Hunter will shorten up the possible defensive line rotations while applying pressure to Ngakoue and Odenignbo.
Ngakoue, a former Pro Bowl selection with 37.5 sacks and 14 forced fumbles in four NFL seasons, will have only five practices under his belt before facing the Packers.
Odenigbo, a third-year pro, is positioned to make a big leap. Last year as a part-time pass rusher, he burst onto the scene with seven sacks in just 33.5% playing time, which could double now as a starter.
The injury will end Hunter’s active NFL games played streak by a defensive end at 77, third longest in the league. His streak trailed New Orleans’ Cameron Jordan (144 games) and Buffalo’s Jerry Hughes (131 games). Hunter had been active for 78 of 80 NFL games so far in his career.
No other Vikings players missed Wednesday’s practice.
Packers’ injury report: OT Billy Turner (knee) and LB Randy Ramsey (groin) did not practice; DL Montravius Adams (toe), LB Oren Burks (groin) and S Raven Greene (quad) were limited on Wednesday.