The worst-case scenario became reality on Monday when it was confirmed that Vikings star defensive end Danielle Hunter will miss the remainder of the 2021 season with a torn pectoral muscle.
It's just a brutal break for Hunter, who battled back from missing all of last season with a herniated disc in his neck and was playing at a very high level, only for this to happen. It's also a major loss for the Vikings, who are suddenly without one of their best players and short on depth at DE as they look to rally out of a 3-4 hole and make the playoffs.
Let's break down all of the ramifications of this truly unfortunate injury.
On a personal level, you feel awful for Hunter
Through the first five seasons of his NFL career, Hunter was on a path towards the Hall of Fame. The 2015 third-round pick out of LSU quickly realized his athletic potential and became one of the most physically dominant edge rushers in the league. He hit 50 career sacks around a month after his 25th birthday, making him the youngest player in the history of the league to reach that milestone.
Hunter's 54.5 sacks from 2015-19 trailed only Chandler Jones, Cameron Jordan, Khalil Mack, and Von Miller among edge rushers. Three of those four players began their careers in 2012 or earlier, meaning they were in the heart of their primes during that stretch. Hunter was just getting started, and began showing off his peak ability during back-to-back 14.5-sack seasons in '18 and '19 that resulted in two trips to the Pro Bowl.
Then a training camp "tweak" in 2020 turned into neck surgery and a lost season. So Hunter attacked his rehab with his famously unparalleled work ethic and got back to where he wanted to be. He dominated the Cardinals with three sacks in Week 2 of this season, and had racked up six sacks and 27 pressures through five games. He was well on his way to another monster season.
A few games later, his season was over again. Hunter will now enter the recovery process again and will take the field in 2022 having missed 26 of the last 33 games, right in the heart of his prime.
"I really can’t imagine what he’s going through," said longtime teammate and friend Everson Griffen. "He rehabbed his neck to get back strong and then he comes back and something like this happens to him. I know that he’s frustrated right now. But he’s got to just pick his head up and fight back just like he did last year. It’s devastating for our football team losing one of our star players. It really hurts."
Hunter turns 28 next October, so he still has plenty of football left in him. But losing the better part of two full seasons in the middle of his career — when he should've been racking up sacks and helping the Vikings win games — is painful. On an individual level, Hunter's ascension up franchise leaderboards and his path to Canton have been put on hold again.
"That’s my brother, man," Dalvin Cook said. "I hate to see him go down like that. Get well soon D, we love you."
Hunter's future is now up in the air
It seems like a long time ago now, but Hunter was holding out for a new deal this offseason, and it was a tricky situation for both sides. Hunter justifiably felt underpaid based on his performance in 2018/19 after signing a team-friendly deal right before those breakout years. But the Vikings didn't want to set a precedent of extending a player with three years left on their contract, nor did they feel comfortable giving a lucrative long-term deal to a player coming off a serious injury.
So the two sides compromised on a deal that gave Hunter a big chunk of signing bonus money up front and an $18 million roster bonus that kicks in on the fifth day of the 2022 league year. The deal essentially pushed the decision on a long-term contract to next spring, while adding a couple void years on the back end of his current deal for flexibility. That way, they could see if he was the same player this year before making their long-term plan.
Now I'm not sure what the Vikings will do. There are a ton of options; they could extend him anyways, keep him on the current deal and spread that bonus money out, restructure the contract again, trade him, or release him outright. I'd assume they'll want to find a way to keep Hunter in Minnesota, but it's anyone's guess exactly what that will look like.
The Vikings need their young DEs to step up
The combination of a pathetic, highly discouraging home loss to the Cooper Rush-led Cowboys and losing Hunter for the season in a 24-hour span has caused a lot of fans and analysts to understandably write off the 2021 Vikings. But there are still 10 games to play and the Vikings are just 0.5 games behind the Panthers for the No. 7 seed in the NFC. The schedule is tough, the offense has been mind-bogglingly bad, and the defense is dealing with several key injuries, but the talent is still there for a potential turnaround, even if that admittedly seems quite unlikely.
If the Vikings are going to stand any chance the rest of the way, particularly in their upcoming stretch against the Ravens, Chargers, and Packers' dynamic offenses, they're going to need guys to step up in Hunter's absence. That means the 33-year-old Griffen continuing to shine as the No. 1 pass rusher on the roster. He has five sacks in six games and although the Vikings would've preferred to limit his snaps to keep him fresh all year, that's no longer a realistic option.
"I feel good," Griffen said. "Honestly, I really feel good. I woke up this morning and I felt good. I had acupuncture and I have a massage [this afternoon]. Everyday recovery. Recovery grind. It doesn't matter about your age. I take care of my body very well. Whatever they want me to do, have me to do, I go out there and do it for my team."
Griffen has been fantastic, but the Vikings need more. Second-year DE D.J. Wonnum has been disappointing, with just eight pressures and one sack in over 200 pass-rushing snaps. The Vikings need him to step it up now that he's in a starting role. With Stephen Weatherly being traded to the Broncos prior to Hunter going down, the two others in the rotation will be young players Kenny Willekes and Patrick Jones II. Willekes made his NFL debut on Sunday and Jones will presumably do the same this week if he's healthy.
"Willekes played a little bit last night, he’s been coming on," Mike Zimmer said. "Pat’s got some ability and he’s been working real hard. So they’ll get some opportunities now."
The Vikings could also look to bring in more depth, perhaps re-signing someone like Hercules Mata'afa, Eddie Yarbrough, or Jordan Brailford. All three spent time on the Vikings' roster or practice squad recently.
Getting Michael Pierce back soon at defensive tackle would also help, as would continued or improved contributions in the pressure department from Dalvin Tomlinson, Sheldon Richardson, and Armon Watts. It'll have to be a team effort to make up for losing one of the defense's best players.
“I don’t think you [can] replace him," Zimmer said of Hunter. "He’s one-of-a-kind. It’s unfortunate that we’re going to miss the next half of the season with him, and all of last year. So, he’s a great kid and he’ll do a good job in his rehab and he’ll be ready to go."
Here's to wishing Hunter a successful recovery and seeing him back at full health and chasing down quarterbacks in 2022.
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