Vikings happy Danielle Hunter came to camp, contract still at issue

EAGAN, Minn. (AP) — Minnesota Vikings edge rusher Danielle Hunter reported to training camp Tuesday after skipping the offseason program, but his status with the club remains uncertain with his contract still an issue.

Coach Kevin O’Connell said he doesn’t expect Hunter to be a full participant in practice “off the bat.” The Vikings have their first full-team workout Wednesday at team headquarters.

“We haven’t really seen him since last season. He looks great. He looks like he’s Danielle Hunter, as always, but we’ll work through a process here,” O’Connell said.

The 28-year-old Hunter, who rebounded from consecutive injury-marred seasons to record 10 1/2 sacks for the Vikings in 2022 and play in his third Pro Bowl, has been seeking a new contract. He can become a free agent next year.

According to data compiled by the website Over The Cap, the annual average value of Hunter’s existing deal ($14.4 million) ranks 16th among edge rushers in the NFL. He’s 16th among active players in the league with 71 career sacks, despite neck surgery that cost him the 2020 season and a torn pectoral muscle that limited him to seven games the following year.

Hunter’s current deal was signed during training camp in 2018, and the market price for quarterback pressure has kept on soaring since. Pittsburgh’s T.J. Watt leads the league in annual average value ($28 million) and fully guaranteed money ($80 million) among current contracts for defensive ends and outside linebackers.

“Danielle and I have had such good dialogue these last few days, really trying to build a plan for him that allows him to feel good about coming to work as a Minnesota Viking every single day,” O’Connell said. “We’ll continue to work through the contractual side.”

O’Connell deferred to general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah on the subject of the negotiation, which could result in a multiyear deal, a trade or the status quo. When asked if he’s confident that Hunter will play for the Vikings this season, Adofo-Mensah stopped short of assuring that.

“I’m really excited to see him,” Adofo-Mensah said. “It’s great to see a great player like that, a great Viking.”

Whether Hunter will be on the field this week, let alone the Sept. 10 season opener against Tampa Bay, is the first issue. The Vikings have a new defensive coordinator in Brian Flores with a scheme that ought to better fit Hunter’s skill set than the 2022 system under Ed Donatell. They also lack proven players at this vital position, following the cost-cutting deal that sent Za’Darius Smith to Cleveland.

“Danielle Hunter loves the Minnesota Vikings. He loves his teammates. He feels really strongly about Mike Smith as his position coach and what we’re trying to do defensively with Flo, but I’d be naive to not know that there’s another part of that process, which is the business side of things,” O’Connell said. “All of our players, whenever they’re capable either coming off of an injury or whatever the issue may be that keeps them from the field early on, my role is to make sure that our football team is at their best when it’s time to play the Bucs on the 10th.”

Adofo-Mensah and executive vice president of football operations Rob Brzezinski have plenty to work on yet this summer, with extensions looming for wide receiver Justin Jefferson and tight end T.J. Hockenson. Adofo-Mensah said the Vikings have had “ongoing dialogue” with the agents for both players.

As for Jefferson, a new deal for the NFL’s leading receiver last year has seemed like a foregone conclusion even with two seasons left on his rookie contract.

“There’s certain types of players you want around: players who love football, are great at football, make their teammates better, just have that winning spirit,” Adofo-Mensah said.

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