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Zulgad’s Roundup: Healthy Danielle Hunter feels “a little bit more free” playing in 3-4 defense

NFL: Minnesota Vikings at Kansas City Chiefs
Aug 27, 2021; Kansas City, Missouri, USA; Minnesota Vikings defensive end Danielle Hunter (99) on the sidelines against the Kansas City Chiefs before the game at GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Danielle Hunter didn’t feel sorry for himself when he suffered a torn pectoral muscle in the Vikings’ seventh game last season. Instead, the Pro Bowl defensive end went right back to work to rehab the injury. Just as he had done in 2020, when he never played a down because a neck injury suffered as training camp opened ended up requiring surgery.

“It’s football, anything can happen while playing,” said Hunter, who was tied for 10th in the NFL with six sacks when he was injured against Dallas. “I love the game of football, that’s why I’m here. If I didn’t like it, I wouldn’t be here. The biggest thing was having the right people around me. Motivating me and keeping me in the right mindset in coming back and all that.”

Hunter is now back playing for a new coach (Kevin O’Connell), a new defensive coordinator (Ed Donatell), in a new defense (3-4 base scheme) and with a new top sack artist on the other side of him (former Packer Za’Darius Smith). All of that is a breath of fresh air for a 27-year-old who had 14.5 sacks in both 2018 and 2019 and has 60.5 sacks in a career that began in 2015.

Hunter remains listed as a defensive end on the Vikings’ roster, but he also will be used as an outside linebacker and that’s the meeting room he’s in these days. Hunter said he felt “pretty good” after the Vikings’ second session of Organized Team Activities on Tuesday at TCO Performance Center, adding, “last year’s injury wasn’t as significant as it was the year before. It was a three-month recovery. Had we made it to the playoffs, I possibly maybe would have come back. I feel good overall. Just good to be back with the guys.”

Vikings running back Dalvin Cook said he was happy to see his veteran teammate on the field.

“Coming back from injury is always tough,” Cook said. “I’ve been down that road. Just his determination. Being around (Hunter), he doesn’t talk a lot, but once he gets comfortable with you he talks with you. Just being around him, for him not to get discouraged or down, just looking to attack, looking for the next day, looking for the next opportunity for him to get out here. I’m just glad to have him back. You all know (Hunter’s) a monster, so we need him out there on the field.”

NO ISSUE WITH CHANGE

Hunter was taken in the third round of the 2015 NFL draft by the Vikings, and former coach Mike Zimmer realized he might have a special player on his hands when he watched Hunter working on the Scout Team playing the role of DeMarcus Ware before a game against the Broncos. Zimmer noticed that Hunter was more comfortable playing in a two-point stance and decided that was the way to go.

That is how Hunter will be playing again now when he’s used as an outside linebacker in the 3-4 and he’s looking forward to it.

“Last year we played 3-4 a little bit,” said Hunter, who will continue to play defensive end when the Vikings go to a 4-3 look. “You guys remember the Arizona game, that game was pretty fun. I feel a little bit more free playing 3-4. We go back-and-forth. Playing 3-4 kind of reminds me of playing Arizona last year.”

Hunter and Smith had been friends before becoming teammates, dating to their time together at the Pro Bowl in 2020. “He’s a cool guy, good overall character and all that stuff,” Hunter said. “He came here, I was excited about it. He texted me saying he was coming here. We just started developing a bond and all that stuff. The biggest thing about us is we bring the confidence of the guys in our room. Everybody has a smile on their face every day when they come in.”

DIFFERENT FEELING

There was no question that things felt uptight last year at TCO Performance Center. Coach Mike Zimmer and quarterback Kirk Cousins clearly did not see eye-to-eye and there likely were other (unknown) factors that made the situation less than pleasant.

But Cook and Hunter both made it clear that the front office changes, and arrival of O’Connell as coach, have made a big difference in the mood in Eagan.

“The energy and having guys enjoying the day and just coming out and having fun, you all can feel the vibes while you’re here,” Cook said. “Coming to work is just fun. I love my job and I love being around these guys.”

Asked to elaborate on the difference, Cook declined. “I’m not going to get into comparing last year and this year,” he said. “This year is a clean start for us  and we just want to look forward to what we’ve got ahead. That’s just us chasing a world championship and that’s going to come by us trusting the process, digging deep every day, believing in what we believe in and just attacking. That’s just got to be the mindset.”

Said Hunter: “The biggest thing is just getting everybody’s confidence. When you get everybody more confident playing football, everything builds off of that. They go out there, they know you’re going to make plays, they know you’re going to do your job and all that stuff. So the biggest thing is having everybody’s spirits up and keeping confidence in each guy out there.”

  • Hunter is signed through next season, with two void years after that, and the Vikings have expressed interest in retaining him. But despite having contract issues in the past with former general manager Rick Spielman, Hunter said his contract isn’t a concern. “That’s something that will (be) handled when it’s time,” he said. “My biggest focus is to focus on football right now and my teammates and helping my team win as much as possible.”
  • Cook on switching from No. 33 to his high school and college number of 4: “I’m me. I’m 4. I just feel comfortable in that number. You know, 33, I love that number and I appreciate everybody for buying all the jerseys. It was important to me when I had No. 33, but it’s the same love in No. 4. We’ve got another No. 33 at linebacker (third-round pick Brian Asamoah). Keep your jerseys, show some love to my boy. Just put some tape on the back of the jersey and change the name or something like that.”
  • The only competition on the Vikings’ offensive line Tuesday was at right guard. Veteran free agents Chris Reed and Jesse Davis both got work with the first unit. Garrett Bradbury, whose fifth-year option was not picked up for next season, was the only center playing with the first team. He was joined by left tackle Christian Darrisaw, left guard Ezra Cleveland and right tackle Brian O’Neill.
  • Second-round guard Ed Ingram out of LSU and 2021 third-round guard Wyatt Davis out of Ohio State were not with the second unit either. The second-team left tackle was Oli Udoh, who struggled as the starting right guard last season.
  • Tight end Irv Smith Jr., who missed all of last season because of a knee injury, was able to do work with the first team in the OTAs. There is no contact in the session so the only concern would have been Smith cutting.
  • To those who aren’t paying attention: The Twins putting Byron Buxton on a plan that could limit him to 100 games is a very big deal. No one is saying Buxton isn’t tough (I’ve said the opposite), but there seemed to be a feeling that when Buxton didn’t pinch hit on Saturday nobody should have criticized the team for it. That’s silly. The reality is a 28-year-old, whom manager Rocco Baldelli and star shortstop Carlos Correa have called the best player is the world, was sitting out in a key situation and nobody knew the exact reason. Now, that we do know the Twins’ seven-year, $100 million man has a chronically sore right knee, it remains a major story and isn’t going away.
  • The last word: Hunter on how good he, Za’Darius Smith and the Vikings’ pass rush can be this season: “The sky’s the limit.”