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Danielle Hunter Healthy & Fired Up for 2021 Season

EAGAN, Minn. — Danielle Hunter made a few things clear Wednesday afternoon in his first media session in over a year.

First and foremost, the Vikings defensive end said he is 100-percent healthy and cannot wait to be back on the field in Purple in 2021.

"I'm happy to be back and I'm ready to go and I'm just eager to play," Hunter said.

Hunter also noted that he prefers to keep a few business items — including his reworked contract and details about his 2020 neck injury — out of the spotlight of press conferences.

"Like I said, I keep the business side of things out of media," Hunter said. "I'm just happy to be back and I'm ready to play."

Hunter and the Vikings recently agreed on a reworked contract, a move that will keep the Pro Bowl defensive end with the team that drafted him for at least the upcoming season.

Hunter signed a multi-year contract extension with the Vikings in June of 2018. And while he still had multiple seasons left on that contract, this reworked deal could position him for another potential extension with the Vikings after the 2021 season.

The 26-year-old did explain how he spent the 2020 season, including the communication he had with both Andre Patterson, his position coach and co-defensive coordinator, as well as Vikings Vice President of Sports Medicine and Head Athletic Trainer Eric Sugarman.

Hunter also revealed the toll it took on him being away from the game.

View photos of the Vikings second mandatory minicamp practice at the TCO Performance Center.

"It was really hard. Being able to just sit there and watch and not being able to do anything to help my teammates and seeing what they've been going through … it was really tough," Hunter said. "We were trying everything that we could possibly try for me to get back to the field the correct way, but it just ended up being the outcome that it had to be.

"After the surgery, I called and talked to all the coaches," Hunter continued. "I communicated with Coach Patterson every week about what was going on and what he thought he should do and my opinions and things. The rehab, it was pretty simple. I just continued my training.

"Coach Patterson called and checked up on me every now and then," Hunter added. "Talked to 'Shug' every week, and he would check up on me, but the main thing was just getting my health back to 100 percent and getting my training back, and I'm excited about that. I've been training for two years now. Pretty fresh, one year of football rest, so I'm just ready to go."

Hunter, of course, was among the game's best defensive players before his injury.

He has 54.5 career sacks in 78 career games, even with just 49 career starts. He's also recorded 67 tackles for loss, six forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries, including two that he has scooped up and returned for touchdowns.

Hunter had 6.0 sacks as a rookie in 2015, turned heads with 12.5 sacks in 2016 and had 7.0 sacks in 2017.

The defensive end then went on a tear across the league in 2018 and 2019. He tallied 14.5 sacks in each season, making the Pro Bowl in back-to-back years. His performance in 2018 earned him First-Team All-Pro honors from the Pro Football Writers of America, and he was a Second-Team All-Pro selection by TheAssociated Press.

Hunter ranked second in the league with 29 combined sacks between 2018 and 2019, trailing only Arizona's Chandler Jones (32 sacks) in that time span. In 2019, he became the youngest player in NFL history to reach 50 career sacks, hitting the mark with a trio of sacks in Week 14 against the Lions.

Can Vikings fans expect the same output from him going forward?

"My goal is to continue to improve and be the best player I can possibly be for me and the team. Whatever they tell me to do, I'll always do it," Hunter said. "I've always done everything the Minnesota Vikings have ever asked me to do. And I don't see myself stopping from doing whatever they tell me to do."

He will now be counted as the leader of a defensive ends group that also features Stephen Weatherly, D.J. Wonnum, Jalyn Holmes, Hercules Mata'afa, Jordan Brailford and rookies Patrick Jones II and Janarius Robinson.

That group has 12.5 combined career sacks between them. Hunter recorded that many or more in three of his first five pro seasons before missing all of last season

"Danielle is a big part of our football team," Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer said Wednesday morning. "He's a great kid, loves to work, loves to come out to practice. The guys were excited to see him [Tuesday]. It's big for our players in the locker room, and we're excited to get Danielle back."

Hunter's teammates echoed Zimmer's sentiment on having the defensive end back in the fold in 2021.

"Everybody's got their own business side going on, so as a player, definitely respect that, but also very happy to have Danielle back," said Vikings safety Harrison Smith. "He's a tough guy to replace. He's a game-wrecker for us, and it's good to see him, good to have him around. Just his presence, you want a guy like that in the locker room."

Added Vikings linebacker Eric Kendricks: "Danielle is the best in the league. We felt that, not even having him. Looking forward to seeing his progression coming into this year, I know he's ready to play. He missed all of last year, so I know inside he's probably boiling and is ready for that first snap."

Minnesota's defense struggled without Hunter, as the Vikings pass rush generated just 23 sacks, a franchise-low number since sacks became an official stat in 1982.

The Vikings also ranked in the bottom quarter of the league in both points and yards allowed per game but revamped that unit this offseason with numerous moves.

Besides getting Hunter, Anthony Barr and Michael Pierce back from injuries or opting out, the Vikings also added Patrick Peterson, Dalvin Tomlinson, Sheldon Richardson, Mackensie Alexander, Bashaud Breeland and Stephen Weatherly, among others.

Hunter said he can't wait to see how the new-look unit comes together.

"I was pretty excited about what I saw when I came back," Hunter said. "I think we're pretty stacked on defense from the D-line to the linebackers to the DBs.

"Coming in, I think the biggest thing would be for me to learn who's next to me and learn how each guy plays. That's the biggest thing for everybody," Hunter added. "When we go out on the field and we play off each other and learn how each other plays, that's what builds defensive characteristics of knowing where a teammate is going to be or who has a certain job or what they're going to do."

Hunter did not attend Vikings voluntary Organized Team Activity practices, but did show up to Twin Cities Orthopedics Center for mandatory minicamp.

And although he hasn't participated in practice (and likely won't Thursday), his return could be the biggest boost of all for a defense that is looking for a bounce-back season in 2021.

"Coming back, the biggest thing for me at that time was to focus on my health and making sure I get myself back to 100 percent," Hunter said of missing OTAs. "I think, personally and for the team, the best thing at that time was for me to get myself back in the best shape and in the best healthy shape as possible.

"I'm happy to be back and I'm ready to go," Hunter added. "I'm just eager to get back out there on the field."