EAGAN, Minn. — Vikings Head Coach Kevin O'Connell took the Twin Cities Orthopedic Performance Center podium with a full smile on Monday.
The primary reason was that No. 99, Danielle Hunter, was heading back to the practice fields a day after agreeing on a one-year deal for 2023.
"Just wanted to touch on the fact of how excited and really happy I am that we were able to come to a really positive solution for both Danielle and the Minnesota Vikings, with what [Executive Vice President of Football Operations] Rob [Brzezinski] and [General Manager] Kwesi [Adofo-Mensah] and Danielle's representatives were able to do," O'Connell said. "The process was a good one, where my daily dialogue with Danielle, and as we continue to learn about each other and for him to know I'm always going to try to do what I say and make sure he knows our intent – especially with a player of Danielle's caliber. We are a better football team with Danielle Hunter, and I'm really, really excited about that."
Hunter, 28, is the disrupting pass rusher every defense needs. He's a three-time Pro Bowl selection with 71 career sacks. Last year he recorded a team-high 10.5 sacks.
The Vikings were in pads for the first time this camp on Monday. Hunter, though considered a full participant, is going through an acclamation period before participating in competitive team drills. Regardless, No. 99 is joyfully back with his teammates and coaches.
"I'm happy to be out here with my teammates, coaches. And everybody," Hunter said after practice. "It's been a long process. I'm here now. I'm ready to work."
And there is a lot of work to get done. The Vikings are installing a revamped defense under new Defensive Coordinator Brian Flores. Hunter has several new defensive running mates to familiarize himself with, too.
Eric Kendricks, Dalvin Tomlinson, and Patrick Peterson were top 10 in defense snaps played for Minnesota last year but departed this offseason.
"I'm learning the playbook right now. I like what I've seen so far. There is a good combination of everything," Hunter said. "We get to blitz guys all over the field on a bunch of things and all that stuff. So I feel like it's a plus for us to be able to have guys doing different things on defense."
His teammates are as excited that Hunter is back as they are to blitz in Flores' new scheme.
"It's a big day," D.J. Wonnum said. "We know what Danielle means to this team and to the guys and to the locker room and to our position room. He's a big-time guy, and he's a big leader, also. Just having him back is an amazing feeling."
To help Hunter and Wonnum upfront, the team also signed Marcus Davenport. He's a powerful edge rusher who can move around the front. But he has never played all 17 regular-season games in any of his five seasons.
Davenport started practice by talking with Hunter. Wherever No. 99 went, Davenport was there to watch a drill, then quickly chat about it — the two plan on making each other better with each rep.
"Iron sharpens iron, especially when it's in the same room. You get to see a guy do great; it makes you want to do that much more," Davenport said. "He's fluid. He's big, but I swear, every time I see him, I'm like, you weigh more than me, but he actually doesn't, but he's just so strong. He's one of those people; you look at him like, 'Dang, you're a beast?' "
Hunter staying healthy could be pivotal to the Vikings defensive success. He suffered a neck injury in 2020 training camp that required season-ending surgery. A torn pectoral cost him 10 games in 2021.
Flores is eager to deploy Hunter like the elite pass rusher he is.
"I see him fitting in as an every-down player. Brings a level of toughness in the run game, as well as the pass game. We'll do everything we can schematically to put him in good positions like we do with all players. He brings an element of, at least in the pass rush standpoint, an element of [feeling] good in 1-on-1 situations."
As the Vikings shifted from a 4-3 to a 3-4 base last season, Hunter did a bit of "going forward" by rushing across the line of scrimmage, but he also dropped into coverage. Flores was asked about those possibilities this year.
"I probably like he him going forward more than backward, personally," Flores said. "But there are some instances where you may have to drop because he's getting doubled in the drops, and there's two guys that are there. There's some instances where we can use that to our advantage. So I like a lot of things he does going forward."
No two seasons are ever identical in the NFL. Rarely do players speculate about their futures. But Hunter was comfortable letting Minnesota know how much he cares about this organization.
"I want to be a Viking forever," he said.