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Zulgad: Minor tweak or major deal? Danielle Hunter's absence from practice remains a mystery

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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)

As the Vikings went through a dress-rehearsal scrimmage at U.S. Bank Stadium on Friday afternoon, Danielle Hunter again did not participate. It marked the 11th consecutive practice that Hunter has missed during training camp because of what coach Mike Zimmer will only describe as a “little tweak.”

It’s Zimmer’s right to reveal as little as he wants about injuries and will remain that way until the Vikings must issue their first injury report of the season on Sept. 9, four days before they play host to the Green Bay Packers in the regular-season opener. But Zimmer knows it’s also the right of anyone with common sense to not buy what he’s selling.

A tweak might have cost Hunter a week’s worth of training camp practices, and if teams were playing preseason games, maybe he would have been held out of the majority of those. But let’s consider what the Vikings are dealing with in this pandemic-shortened camp. There was no offseason program and there are no exhibition games, so even the best players, and Hunter is an elite defensive end, need what little on-the-field time players are getting to be prepared for the season.

Calling this a “little tweak” also sells Hunter short, considering he has missed only two games since being a third-round pick in 2015 and those came in his rookie season. He has played in 64 consecutive games over the past four seasons and has made 48 consecutive regular-season starts. Those numbers grow to 68 and 52 if you include the Vikings’ playoff appearances in 2017 and 2019.

Hunter is more of an iron man than anything.

So what’s really going on here? The obvious concern is that whatever Hunter is suffering from is far more than a “little tweak” and that’s he dealing with an injury that could impact him into the season. Is Hunter going to be prepared to take his normal amount of reps when the season opens, if he remains on the sideline much longer? The Vikings were off on Saturday and return to practice Sunday, meaning Hunter could return.

Hunter has become one of the best defensive ends in the NFL and has 14.5 sacks in each of the past two years. That total tied him for fourth in the league last season and he also became the youngest player in NFL history to reach 50 career sacks. Hunter will become even more important to the Vikings in 2020, if that’s possible, with longtime right end Everson Griffen now in Dallas.

Let’s give the Vikings the benefit of the doubt for a moment and say this is nothing more than “a little tweak,” or less than that. Why wouldn’t Hunter be getting reps at his left end spot on the Vikings’ new-look defensive line? One possibility that was broached on the SKOR North Purple Daily podcast Friday with ESPN’s Courtney Cronin was the potential that this absence could involve Hunter’s contract.

Hunter, according to the Over The Cap website, is ranked 18th among edge rushers in the NFL when it comes to average annual salary. He is averaging $14.4 million per season on a five-year, $72 million deal he signed in June 2018 that included $40 million guaranteed and a $15 million signing bonus. Hunter’s contract probably should put him among the top five edge rushers in the league. Hunter’s contract was restructured this past March in a move that reportedly lowered his salary cap hit for 2020 from $14.5 million to $9 million.

In other words, Hunter has been a very team-friendly player even as he’s become an NFL superstar. So what if he’s decided he has been too team friendly, or what if he really does have a minor injury that he’s not going to make worse while playing on his current contract? The issue is that Hunter’s contract runs through the 2023 season and he, ultimately, did decide to sign it, no matter how the deal looks for him at this point.

The Vikings have spent much of the offseason, and training camp, dealing with the contract situation of running back Dalvin Cook, who is entering the final season of his rookie deal. Those talks broke off a few weeks ago and it appears as if Cook is set to play for $1.3 million this season. That’s a bargain for the Vikings.

The Vikings also are getting a bargain when it comes to Hunter. Of course, it’s only a bargain if he is on the field. If Hunter isn’t playing left end on Sept. 13, no matter what the reason, a minor tweak will have become a major deal.