EAGAN, Minn. – Danielle Hunter usually is wrapping his arms around opposing quarterbacks, but earlier this week he embraced Head Coach Mike Zimmer.
The defensive end arrived at Twin Cities Orthopedics Performance Center this week to participate in the Vikings minicamp after reaching an agreement that hasn't been disclosed by the team.
Hunter, who spent the entirety of the 2020 season on Injured Reserve, did not take part in the voluntary Organized Team Activities.
"Obviously Danielle's a big part of our football game – he's a great kid. He loves to work, loves to come out to practice," Zimmer told Twin Cities media members Wednesday. "The guys were excited to see him yesterday. It's one of those things where we've been very, very fortunate that the guys we have on this team want to come back here. The same thing with guys like Sheldon [Richardson] and Mackensie [Alexander] and a lot of these guys that have [left and] come back.
"That's big for the players in our locker room, and we're excited to get Danielle back," he added.
Asked about the approach to Hunter's contract, Zimmer noted that he left the numbers in the front office's hands.
"I know he wants to play football – I saw him for the first time a couple days ago, I guess it was, and he came over and gave me a big hug," Zimmer said. "We weren't sure that he was healthy until he came in and did his physical, and he looks fantastic, and he should be ready to go."
Here are five other topics covered by Zimmer Wednesday:
1. Bolstering the D-line
Hunter will be part of a beefed-up defensive line that includes the likes of Richardson, who signed with the Vikings Tuesday; Michael Pierce, who joined Minnesota in 2020 but opted out of last season due to COVID-19 concerns; free-agency addition Dalvin Tomlinson; and Stephen Weatherly, who also returned to the fold after spending last season with the Panthers.
"It's real early right now to talk too much about roles, but we anticipate that [Richardson's] going to be the pass-rushing guy," Zimmer explained on the interior. "Not that Dalvin and Michael can't do that. But that's kind of where we see him being worked in."
He emphasized that "you can never have too many" defensive linemen, from rookies up to the veterans.
"[D.J. Wonnum has] changed his body and looks really good," Zimmer said. "Weatherly's back … and Jalyn Holmes. We have a lot of guys who have potential to be really good players, and I think the more that you can add to the mix, the better off we are."
"It'll be a great competition in camp with the guys that we've added," Zimmer said.
2. Teaching an old dog new tricks?
Cornerback Patrick Peterson may have plenty of accolades to his name, but along with a fresh start in Minnesota he's eager to up his game even more.
One reporter referenced Peterson's "All Things Covered" podcast, during which the veteran said he feels like himself with the Vikings.
"One of the things I did with Patrick when he got here, I had him come in my office, sit down. A lot of these guys who are eight-[time] Pro Bowl players and things like that, they really don't want to be coached," Zimmer said. "And so one of the things [I did], I called him and asked him, 'Tell me about you. What do you like to do? How do you like to do it? Do you want to be coached? I think I can help you in these areas.'
"He said, 'Coach, I want to be coached. I want to get back to playing really good,' " Zimmer continued. "He's done a great job this spring. I've been really excited about the things he's trying to do, that we're trying to teach him, and actually some of the things that he's [already] done. Just really trying to give him a few more tools in the toolbox – get him to understand the concepts and where we can help him, as well."
3. Competition at WR3
Wide receiver one and two? Check and check.
But who shows the most promise to step into that third receiver spot behind Adam Thielen and Justin Jefferson?
Zimmer said it's "hard to tell" at this stage, but that isn't necessarily a bad thing.
"I really like some of these guys. Some of the young guys we drafted, even Blake Proehl [who was an undrafted free agent], he's done a nice job," Zimmer said. "You still got Chad Beebe, and K.J. Osborn has had a really nice camp. Even [Dan] Chisena's done a really good job – we had [previously] thought of him being maybe just a special teams player.
"But they've all kind of grown as they're moving forward here," he continued. "Thank goodness we have some of these preseason games to get a look at some of these guys, as well. But I think once we get into [training] camp, we'll find out a little bit more about some of them. The other part about being the third, fourth, fifth receiver is, 'How do you do on special teams?' "
The Vikings also have receiver Bisi Johnson, who is entering his third pro season.
4. Barr, Kendricks and … ?
Similar to the above point, Minnesota's top two linebackers in Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks are safely set in stone.
But there looks to be some competition at the third linebacker for the Vikings base package.
That role previously had been more or a run-stop focus, but has the position need changed as the NFL's passing game has evolved?
"I think one of the big things is, all these linebackers have to run these days. The two-down middle linebackers are, like dinosaurs, extinct – so all these guys have to be good in the passing game and in the run game," Zimmer said. "Quite honestly, the number of base-defense plays that you have is way down compared to what it used to be. But Nick Vigil's done a nice job, Blake Lynch, Troy Dye. We've got a lot of competition at linebacker, as well, I think. [Tuf] Borland's done a nice job.
"The more that these guys continue to go and add to the depth of our linebacker spot, I think it's going to be really good for the special teams, as well," he added. "One of the things I feel like we've really done, especially on the defensive side of the ball, is we've added a lot of competition at, really, all the spots. And I think competition makes you all better."
5. Vaccine education efforts continue
Zimmer was asked about the team's continued efforts to educate players on their options for vaccines to protect against COVID-19.
He said the team's approach has been trying to deliver all of the available information about the vaccines, as well as remind players that numerous protocols implemented in 2020 will remain in place for unvaccinated players in 2021.
"Today we had a team meeting with Dr. Allen Sills, who is the Chief Medical Officer for the NFL, and he talked to them a lot about the vaccine, how safe it is, how it became tested," Zimmer said. "He talked to them about what the protocols will be next fall, which we should be hearing in the next couple of days. He talked to them about why they should, and even if they've had COVID, why they should still get vaccinated, because the antibodies of once you get COVID and then get vaccinated, your antibodies are way off the charts, so you're going to be safer if it comes back again.
"We're just trying to educate these guys. They have to make their own decisions," Zimmer added. "The unvaccinated players are going to have a harder time in the season. They're going to be wearing masks; they'll have to social distance. They'll have daily testing. They won't be able to go home for bye week. They'll have to come back here and test every day.
"When we go on the road, they won't be able to go out to dinner with anybody. They'll have to travel on buses differently, travel on planes differently, so the meetings will be, a lot of the meetings will be virtual, like this is here, so there's not only the safety part of being vaccinated, but as far as being part of a football team, it's going to be so much easier," Zimmer continued. "Like me, for instance, I don't have to wear a mask. We had a staff meeting the other day with everybody in the same room. We can sit there and talk as opposed to doing it like we're doing [this media session] here. I know you guys know I don't really like doing all of the media stuff, but I'd much rather be sitting in the room talking to you, rather than looking up at this camera and then looking down at you."