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What a rush: Hunter’s return could be just what Vikings’ defense needs after miserable season

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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 open training camp next Wednesday at TCO Performance Center. For the next six days, SKOR North’s Judd Zulgad will exam a topic that could or will impact Mike Zimmer’s team. The second installment involves the return of defensive end Danielle Hunter.

Danielle Hunter’s absence from training camp practices last summer was attributed to what coach Mike Zimmer first described as a “tweak.” By late October, that tweak turned out to be a herniated disc that required season-ending surgery and played a significant role in the Vikings’ pass rush going from one of the best in the NFL to among the worst.

Adding Yannick Ngakoue just before the regular season in a trade that sent a 2021 second-round pick and a conditional fifth-round pick to Jacksonville, didn’t have the desired result and the defensive end was dealt to Baltimore in late October with the Vikings sitting at 1-5 during their bye week.

Ngakoue was long gone by the time the season ended, but still ended up leading the team with five sacks in six games. That was just one example of how ineffective the Vikings were both overall on defense and especially when it came to getting to the quarterback. Minnesota finished 28th in the league with 23 sacks (on 541 pass attempts by opponents), the lowest total in franchise history since sacks became an official stat in 1982.

This came after Zimmer’s defense had tied for fifth with 48 sacks in 2019 and tied for third with 50 in 2018. The lowest a Zimmer-coached defense had ranked in sacks since he took over in 2014 was tied for 17th and the Vikings had been Top 10 in sacks in five of his first six seasons.

Hunter had been the biggest difference-maker since his second season in Minnesota in 2016. He had 12.5 sacks in 16 games (no starts) that season, but started all 16 games from 2017 to 2019 and had sack totals of seven, 14.5 and 14.5. Throw in the six sacks he had in 14 games after being drafted in the third round in 2015, and Hunter has 54.5 sacks in five seasons. He became the youngest player to reach 50 sacks in 2019, when he did it at the age of 25.

Assuming Hunter can return to his pre-injury form, he figures to resume being a nightmare for opposing offensive linemen and quarterbacks and prove to the Vikings that they made the right move in June by reworking his contract and giving him $5.6 million of his 2021 salary as a signing bonus. The Vikings also now will have a decision to make on Hunter in March. The fifth day of the new league year he will be due an $18.5 million roster bonus and his salary cap hit would be scheduled to be $26.12 million for 2022.

If Hunter doesn’t return as the same dominant player he was before the injury, he will be cut. The Vikings are banking on Hunter forcing them to do some creative accounting, considering a successful 2021 from Hunter will be a key to getting this defense back on track after a horrible 2020.

Hunter will have new teammates beside him on the line with Michael Pierce (who opted out of last season because of concerns about COVID-19) and Dalvin Tomlinson (signed as a free agent from the Giants) at the tackle positions. The Vikings also brought back defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson, who should provide an interior rush on passing downs.

The one unanswered question on the line is a yet-to-be decided starter at right end.

That job belonged to Everson Griffen until last season, giving the Vikings one of the better one-two punches from the end positions in the NFL. Griffen finished second on the Vikings with eight sacks in 2019 and 5.5 in 2018.

The Vikings expressed interest in free agent ends Carl Lawson and Trey Hendrickson, but the former ended up with the Jets and the latter with the Bengals. The Vikings will have nine defensive ends on their roster entering training camp and it’s expected veteran Stephen Weatherly will get a chance to win the right end spot after he was brought back following a one-season stay with Carolina.

Weatherly, a seventh-round pick by the Vikings in 2016, had a combined six sacks in 32 games (seven starts) as a rotational player in 2018 and ’19 before getting none in nine games last season with the Panthers. Despite starting all nine games, Weatherly only had 12 pressures before he was sidelined by a season-ending finger injury.

D.J. Wonnum, a 2020 fourth-round pick by the Vikings, finished tied for third on the team last season with three sacks and figures to compete with Weatherly. The other defensive ends on the roster include Jordan Brailford, Jalyn Holmes, Hercules Mata’afa and Kenny Willekes and rookies Patrick Jones (third-round pick) II and Janarius Robinson (fourth-round pick). These six have a combined 3.5 sacks between them in the NFL. (Mata’afa has 2.5 and Holmes one.)

While Hunter has exceptional skills, part of what helped him so much was the fact that opposing offenses also had to pay attention to Griffen. Unless the Vikings find a pleasant surprise at right end, that likely will change. It will be interesting to see if Zimmer decides to move Hunter along the line in an attempt to create confusion.

There’s also a chance he leaves Hunter alone at left end and hopes he can use his 6-foot-5, 252-pound frame to again wreak havoc on quarterbacks. That’s a luxury Zimmer didn’t have last season and will be delighted (if Zimmer is ever delighted) to get back for this one.