The Vikings appeared to make a major upgrade on their defensive line in late August when they acquired right end Yannick Ngakoue from Jacksonville. Nose tackle Michael Pierce’s decision to sit out the season because of concerns about COVID-19 had been a blow to the interior of the line, but getting Ngakoue to be one of the bookends, with Danielle Hunter on the other side, gave the Vikings the potential to make life miserable on opposing offensive tackles.
There were a few mentions along the way that the Vikings made the trade because they were concerned about Hunter’s continued absence from practice, but coach Mike Zimmer had called Hunter’s injury nothing more than a “little tweak.” If that was the case, many of the questions about Zimmer’s pride and joy, the defense, had been put to rest, replaced by a newfound confidence.
That confidence was shattered on Wednesday when the Vikings announced Hunter had been placed on injured reserve because of a neck injury. Actually, the Vikings only announced that Hunter had gone on the IR, meaning he will have to miss at least three weeks. It was ESPN’s Courtney Cronin who unearthed the fact that Hunter has been dealing with a neck injury since he last practiced on Aug. 12. The fact Zimmer and the Vikings remained so secretive about Hunter’s absence in training camp was not surprising, considering they are under no obligation to report injury information until the first Wednesday before the Sunday opener.
But moving Hunter to IR late Wednesday afternoon — and thereby continuing to avoid revealing what is wrong with him — has to be considered a red flag. Of course, there is no such thing as a minor neck injury. A harness can be placed on an injured shoulder and a brace on a knee injury. But a neck issue that lands a player on the IR usually keeps him there for the long term.
Evening Judd: So much for Danielle Hunter having a little tweak. pic.twitter.com/AODoiXxbHh
— SKOR North (@SKORNorth) September 9, 2020
The Vikings are going to point to the fact that in this pandemic-altered season they can return an unlimited number of players off injured reserve, although each player must spend three weeks on the list. That would mean, ideally, Hunter is back for the Week 4 game in Houston. But with how much the Vikings went out of their way during camp to create the impression that Hunter would be fine for Sunday’s game against Green Bay, there is no reason to believe anything they tell us about him at this point.
The Vikings, of course, aren’t going to care about what any of us think about how they handled this. Actually, the party with the most egg on its face might be the Jacksonville Jaguars, who took a 2021 second-round pick and a conditional 2022 fifth-round pick in the trade for Ngakoue. If the Jaguars had known how desperate the Vikings were to get a top-end pass rusher, they almost certainly would have held out for a first-round pick.
The length of Hunter’s absence also could end up being tied to a contract that puts him 18th among edge rushers in the NFL when it comes to average annual salary, according to the Over The Cap website. He is averaging $14.4 million per season on a five-year, $72 million deal he signed in June 2018. That deal included $40 million guaranteed and a $15 million signing bonus and runs through the 2023 season.
We’re talking about a guy who has had 14.5 sacks in back-to-back seasons and should be among the top five paid edge rushers in the NFL. So is Hunter going to put his career in jeopardy to try and return as soon as possible? No way. Not going back on the field might look selfish but this is about self-preservation in a sport where far too few worry about the players.
The Vikings’ depth chart has Jalyn Holmes, a fourth-round pick in in 2018, listed as Hunter’s backup. The Packers’ offensive line and Aaron Rodgers will go from having to worry about Hunter coming from the left end and Ngakoue from the right, to focusing solely on Ngakoue.
That will make life much easier on Green Bay — especially with the Packers’ right tackle situation unsettled — and other Vikings opponents in the coming weeks. How long will teams have that luxury against Minnesota? The Vikings aren’t about to tell us, but the assumption now has to be Hunter’s absence will be for the long haul.