Hunting Danielle—The Vikings’ Long Play on their Elusive DE

Danielle Hunter
Nov 4, 2018; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Vikings defensive end Danielle Hunter (99) celebrates after a sack during the fourth quarter against the Detroit Lions at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

If Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer were a hunter (which he is), six-year defensive end Danielle Hunter would be his prey—and a prized one at that. Zimmer, who has spent much of the offseason rebuilding his defense, knows that Hunter is the cornerstone, the one which when it was lost last season caused the defense to crumble. And he desperately wants him back this season.

Zimmer and his team’s general manager Rick Spielman drafted Hunter in the third round of the 2015 draft and they knew at that time he was a project—and labeled him as such. Hunter, with the help of the Vikings assistant head coach and co-defensive coordinator, Andre Patterson, who coached the defensive line in 2015, made himself into one of the top players in the league in short time (an average of 10.9 sacks over five seasons and 14.5 in each of the last two he played), and without him (due to a herniated disk in his neck) and other missing players last season, the Vikings defense was a shell of its former greatness. 

And Zimmer prides himself on a great defense, saying last season that the 2020 Vikings defense was the worst one he has ever assembled. So, you know Zimmer the hunter is hot on the trail of Danielle the Hunter. Therefore, much was made this week of a comment Zimmer made in his “Zim Zoom” presser Wednesday. He was asked if he’s heard from Hunter, who is not present at the OTAs, and said the following: 

“I have not [heard from him]. It’s voluntary. When guys are here we have had outstanding participation, almost 95 percent . . . . For the most part we have had outstanding participation, so we’ll just see when mini-camp shows up.”

The upshot of subsequent hand wringing and consternation throughout Purple Nation centers around why Zimmer is not in seemingly better communication with the lynchpin ofhis defensive line are arguably the most vital cog on that side of the ball. But Zimmer, we contend, is just long-playing the situation and perhaps, like a good hunter, trying not to spook the young buck and scare him into the wilderness of another season on the sidelines.

The entire situation sits in start contrast to some of the other contract squabbles going on with some big-name quarterbacks around the league—in fact the one directly to our east in Green Bay is particularly loud and untenable at the moment. But to be honest, Zimmer looked a littlechagrinned when he answered the question—and he is not as adept at hiding his emotions or spinning his responses as his GM is on occasion. 

Zimmer said “we’ll just see when mini-camp shows up,” which can sound like the response of a person who has no control of the situation and is hoping for Hunter to return just as much as every Viking fan is doing. But there is another way of interpreting it. In the past, Zim has let his emotions get away from him and it hasn’t always worked out well. For instance, linebacker Anthony Barr caught the “hot Mike” of Zimmer one season regarding his effort and that notion probably stuck in Barr’s craw to the point of him agreeing on a free agent contract with the New York Jets. (Barr ultimately bailed on the agreement and returned to the Vikings). Perhaps this time Zim is trying to keep the contract negotiations or disagreements out of the media and waiting for the time—mini-camp—when attendance becomes mandatory and each side knows a little bit more about the other side without ever having to making a statement to the press.

Perhaps, Zim, figuratively decked head-to-toe in hunter orange, is laying a trap for Danielle. It’s not like the Vikings haven’t made moves to try to lure Hunter back to the fold. The unexpected waiving of cornerback Mike Hughes can be seen as cap friendly move to free up space for Hunter. Or the June 1st windfall of cap space from letting Kyle Rudolph go could be put in the same category. And there could be more on the way. The point being is that actions speak louder than “media words” in contract negotiations and surreptitiously baiting a trap is much more effective in the woods than yelling, “hey, you young stud, get over here where I can capture you!”

Zimmer wants Hunter back. As much pride as he takes in his first draft pick Barr and wanted Teddy Bridgewater to be his quarterback for his entire tenure, Zim also doesn’t want to see “the project” he snared before others and then developed into an All-Pro heading off to other pastures—when he will have to figure out ways to block him.

Throw in the uncertainty of Hunter’s healing (hopefully healed) neck and everyone is holding their collective breath on this one. Hunter likely wants more money and security, and the Vikings want more sacks and wins. Both sides know the importance of getting this one right for the coming season, and it looks like each realizes that the less that is said publicly before the deal is consummated, the better. Any unneeded noise could scare the prey away. Every good hunter, such as Danielle and Zim, knows that.