MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Minnesota Vikings defensive end Danielle Hunter will miss the remainder of the season with a torn pectoral muscle, a devastating loss of the team's best pass rusher for the second straight year.
Coach Mike Zimmer confirmed the diagnosis on Monday afternoon, after the two-time Pro Bowl pick had an MRI in the morning.
Hunter was hurt in the second quarter of the game against Dallas on Sunday night. He tackled Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott using only his left arm after a 2-yard gain early in the second quarter and appeared to get up slowly from the pile. Hunter played most of the rest of that drive for Dallas, but was ruled out of the rest of the game by halftime. The Cowboys went on to win 20-16.
“I don't think you replace him. He's one of a kind,” Zimmer said. “It’s unfortunate that we’re going to miss the next half of the season with him, and all of last year. He’s a great kid, and he’ll do a good job in his rehab, and he’ll be ready to go."
Hunter agreed in June to restructure his contract for immediate salary cap relief for the Vikings, who in turn added an $18 million bonus due to kick in on March 20 — the fifth day of the next league year — if he's on the roster then. He's unlikely to be back for 2022 at that rate without a new long-term deal, so this latest injury increased the possibility he'll become a free agent in the spring.
Hunter didn't play at all in 2020 because of a herniated disk in his neck that eventually required surgery, after he suffered the fluke injury at the beginning of training camp. The third-round 2015 draft pick out of LSU, who has long been one of the fastest, fittest and strongest defensive linemen in the NFL, played in every game from 2016-19.
“I really can’t imagine what he’s going through. He rehabbed his neck to get back strong, and then he comes back and something like this happens to him,” defensive end Everson Griffen said. “It can be very frustrating, and 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.”
Hunter was the youngest player to reach 50 sacks in league history, reaching that mark in 2019 shortly after his 25th birthday. He has six of the team's 24 sacks this season.
“We've got to get the young guys going and get them ready to play,” Griffen said. "But losing Danielle is a big blow.’’
The Vikings (3-4) are still plenty vulnerable on defense, as Cowboys backup quarterback Cooper Rush revealed on Sunday, but the return of Hunter and Griffen — who re-signed with his original team after one year elsewhere — has keyed a resurgence of the strong pass rush they've long leaned on. The Vikings lead the NFL in sacks per pass attempt.
The problem is there's little depth left at defensive end, after a trade that sent Stephen Weatherly to Denver last week. Griffen and D.J. Wonnum will be the starters in heavy rotation, but Kenny Willekes and Patrick Jones II are the only others on the roster at that position for now.
Willekes, a seventh-round draft pick in 2020, was promoted from the practice squad before the game on Sunday and made his NFL debut. Jones, a third-rounder out of Pittsburgh this year, was inactive against the Cowboys because of a knee injury. Fourth-round pick Janarius Robinson was hurt during training camp and is on injured reserve.
“Willekes played a little bit last night. He’s been coming on. Pat’s got some ability, and he’s been working real hard,” Zimmer said. "So they’ll get some opportunities now.”
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