Defensive end Danielle Hunter hasn't suited up for the Vikings since Jan. 11, 2020 in the playoff loss at San Francisco.
Watching the once-vaunted Vikings defense deteriorate piece by piece, starting with the herniated disc in his neck in August, was among the most difficult parts of his time away, Hunter said Wednesday during his first public comments since the Pro Bowl pass rusher was sidelined last year.
"It was really hard," he said. "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. 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 declined to discuss how his injury occurred; coach Mike Zimmer has previously said it happened during a non-padded practice in training camp. Hunter also declined to discuss how he felt about his reworked contract. The Vikings moved a big chunk of this year's salary – reportedly $5.6 million – into his pocket now while installing an $18 million signing bonus due next March, which could effectively trigger more negotiations on his deal that runs through 2023.
Hunter did say he skipped the Vikings' voluntary organized team activities to "focus on my health" and "get back to 100%" as he's nearly eight months removed from neck surgery.
The Vikings and Hunter tried for roughly two months to return him to the field last year without surgery. But after he opted for the operation, Hunter said, he heard weekly throughout last season from the Vikings medical staff and assistant head coach Andre Patterson, the team's defensive line guru, as the defense struggled with more injuries and performance.
"After the surgery, I called and talked to all the coaches," Hunter added. "I communicated with coach Patterson every week about what's going on and what he thinks that he should do and what are my opinions on things. The rehab, it was pretty simple."
Zimmer said Hunter's physical on Monday went well and that he "should be ready to go" this season. But Hunter said he'll take his time returning to full go. He's mostly watched two minicamp practices this week, walking through some defensive drills in a visor.
"Overall health, I feel 100%," Hunter said. "But to get into football shape, that's just something that you have to go back out on the field and take all the steps you need to take."
After surgery, Hunter's spirits were lifted by family members staying with him as the league's COVID-19 restrictions prevented teammates from gathering outside the facility. His mood may have also been brightened with this week's reworked contract that could result in another payday next offseason.
"I let the front office handle all that," Zimmer said. "I know he wants to play football. I saw him for the first time [Monday] 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 is also liking the retooled Vikings defense, including three new defensive tackles (Michael Pierce, Dalvin Tomlinson and Sheldon Richardson) and veteran cornerback Patrick Peterson. Still, the 26-year-old Hunter – the NFL's youngest player to reach 50 career sacks – may be the biggest addition to last year's defensive lineup.
"I was pretty excited about what I saw when I came back," Hunter said. "We're pretty stacked on defense from the D-line to the linebackers to the DBs. Coming in, I think the biggest thing would be for me to learn off who's next to me and learn how each guy plays. That's the biggest thing for everybody."
Hunter's absence, arguably the main reason for the Vikings' franchise-low 23 sacks last year, reaffirmed everything his teammates already thought of the star defensive end.
"Danielle's the best in the league," linebacker Eric Kendricks said. "We felt that, especially not even having him. 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."