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Vikings star defensive end Danielle Hunter will miss rest of season because of pectoral injury

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Minnesota Vikings defensive end Danielle Hunter warms up before an NFL football game against the Chicago Bears, Sunday, Dec. 29, 2019, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Andy Clayton-King)

The Vikings will be without their top defensive player for the remainder of the season after end Danielle Hunter suffered a torn pectoral muscle in a loss to the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday night at U.S. Bank Stadium. Hunter was injured in the first half and an MRI on Monday confirmed the extent of the injury.

Hunter, a two-time Pro Bowl selection, missed all of last season because of a herniated disc that required surgery. He was off to a strong start this season and is tied for 10th in the NFL with six sacks.

“I don’t think you replace him,” coach Mike Zimmer said of Hunter. “He’s one of a kind. It’s unfortunate we’re going to miss the next half of the season with him and all of last year. He’s a great kid, he’ll do a great job in his rehab and he’ll be ready to go.”

This marks the second consecutive season in which the Vikings have lost a defensive starter to a torn pectoral muscle. Last year, Anthony Barr suffered a torn pec in Week 2.

Hunter’s absence will give ends D.J. Wonnum, Kenny Willekes and rookie Patrick Jones II a chance to see playing time. Wonnum, a fourth-round pick of the Vikings in 2020, has one sack in seven games (four starts) this season and four sacks in 21 career games. He was a starter to open the season but has been replaced by Everson Griffen, who returned to the Vikings during training camp after playing for Dallas and Detroit in 2020.

Willekes, a seventh-round pick in 2020, missed his rookie season because of a torn ACL. He made his NFL debut on Sunday after watching the first six games and played 16 snaps on defense. Jones, a third-round pick out of Pittsburgh last April, has yet to play in a game this season. He had nine sacks for the Panthers last year.

The Vikings traded defensive end Stephen Weatherly to Denver during their bye week. Hunter’s absence means Minnesota could have used the veteran depth Weatherly would have provided but he wasn’t happy with his limited playing time behind Griffen and Wonnum, who beat Weatherly out for the starting job in camp.