EAGAN, Minn. — To most people, Danielle Hunter is No. 99 in a Vikings uniform.
To the guy on the Vikings offensive line who has practiced against Hunter more than anyone, the 99 could represent a percentile.
"He's just bigger, stronger, faster, quicker and more skilled than 99 percent of the people out there," right tackle Brian O'Neill said earlier this week.
Cornerback Patrick Peterson, who is preparing for his 11th pro season and first in Minnesota, could hardly believe his eyes when Hunter arrived for mandatory minicamp in June after a reworked contract.
"I was like, 'Uh, we got us one here for sure.' He's just a freak of nature, just ripped up, has a body of a gladiator," Peterson said. "Reminded me a lot of a young Jevon Kearse, just has that same body structure, that same tenacity off the edge, and he's able to create havoc every single time he's on the football field."
Kearse, the uncle of former Vikings safety Jayron Kearse, exploded on the scene in 1999 with 14.5 sacks, nine passes defensed and an NFL-leading eight forced fumbles to win Defensive Rookie of the Year honors from The Associated Press. He finished with 74 career sacks and a whopping 28 forced fumbles in 11 seasons.
The physique of Hunter, his game film against the pass and run and stats from 2015-19 made him seem invincible, but a neck injury suffered in a non-padded practice last August showed he can have a mortal moment.
What initially was believed to be minor became problematic enough to require surgery and force the NFL's youngest player to officially record 50 career sacks to miss all of his sixth pro season.
Hunter spoke with media members Saturday and opened by saying, "I'm definitely not where I want to be."
"It's good to see that I still have some stuff still going on for me, but I'm definitely not where I want to be, so I'll just continue each and every day to improve and get the rustiness off," Hunter added.
He said "just basic D-line stuff, getting my hands and eyes and my feet where they need to be," when asked to elaborate.
"You can't really train for being in football shape, so that's pretty much what we're all going through right now," Hunter said. "There's still a ways to go. That's for everybody. I think that will probably come by the end of [August]. It's just getting in there and doing what I need to do."
View photos of Vikings players from 2021 U.S. Bank Vikings Training Camp practice at the TCO Performance Center on July 30.
That's all true, but it's also true that the always humble Hunter caught the attention of Head Coach Mike Zimmer on Wednesday.
"I wasn't really closely watching him, but I sure did notice him," Zimmer said. "He's one of those guys that, the first time we went 1-on-1 pass rush, he was going against O'Neill, and it was amazing.
"So I heard O'Neill ask him, he said, 'Danielle, what was that move?' And he said, 'I don't know. It just happened.' He's just slithery and [has] long arms and [is] athletic. It's just different," Zimmer added.
Stephen Weatherly, who teamed with Hunter from 2016-19 before heading to Carolina to start for the Panthers last season and returning this offseason said Friday that "D is still D. Freak."
"Definitely gets off the ball, his technique is great, especially in the pass rush," Weatherly said. "He looks just like how he did before I left, maybe a little bit better."
So Hunter, the player who posted 14.5 sacks in back-to-back seasons from 2018-19, downplayed where he's at, even when the head coach and teammates have been pumping him up.
What about his position coach that's molded him from a third-round pick in 2015 to one of the NFL's best pass rushers?
Interestingly, Assistant Head Coach/Co-Defensive Coordinator Andre Patterson also said Hunter is "just being D" before taking a similar tone as Hunter.
"There's some things that I see that he has to work on to get back in the groove," Patterson said. "I mean, playing defensive line is not like riding a bike.
"I tell guys all the time – when you're a DB or a receiver or running back, you can go do things in the offseason that carry over to what you do on the field," Patterson added.
Patterson said pad work and other defensive line drills just aren't the same as live reps against a player.
"It takes time for you to get your body back in the groove to play defensive line," Patterson said. "He's just like any other defensive lineman in the league. There's some things that you've got to do to improve to get yourself game-ready. He hasn't wowed me. He's just being D."
While Hunter may not consider himself ready to open the regular season, there's a long way to go before Sept. 12 in Cincinnati, he's grateful to be heading in that direction.
"It's very satisfying, being able to go out there and be with my teammates, because last year, I was just sitting on the sidelines, watching," Hunter said. "It's just a blessing to be able to come out here and be around my coaches and teammates and be able to see guys that kind of look like me on the defensive line, being able to teach them the ways of the defense."
It's also certain that he's a big part of the Vikings plans to improve on 2020's results. That's as a pass rusher, a stout run defender and more.
"He's looked terrific. Really good in the run game. Really good in the passing game," Zimmer said. "It's nice to have him back out there, obviously. He's a really smart kid, takes a lot of pride in what he's trying to do. Really good with the rest of the guys, as far as now becoming one of the veteran leaders in the group. And I'm glad we have him. Wish we had 10 more like him."