Danielle Hunter is back — again — from a season-ending surgery, his second in as many years. But this time, the Vikings' Pro Bowl pass rusher took the field during Tuesday's practice in a new role with new coaches and a new partner in former Packers Pro Bowler Za'Darius Smith.
As younger players ran through special teams drills, Hunter and Smith were together off to the side and tossing a football around a day after Smith said the Vikings' new pass-rushing duo began making plans for "some of the moves we could do" during pregame announcements at U.S. Bank Stadium.
"It's been pretty good," Hunter said after practice. "We just started developing a bond and all that stuff. The biggest thing about it is that we bring the confidence of the guys in our room, and everybody has a smile on their face every day they come in."
What isn't yet new for Hunter is his contract. After sources said the Vikings explored trading him in March following failed extension talks, General Manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah opted to retain Hunter and pay an $18 million roster bonus. Adofo-Mensah said the goal remains to sign the 27-year-old Hunter to a new long-term deal, which requires bridging financial gaps. Asked Tuesday whether contract talks have resumed, Hunter, who is signed through 2023, said it "will be handled when it's time."
"I wasn't really worried about that," he added. "Just trying to get back playing football and being around the guys. It kind of hurts just watching people play when you're not able to play. So I'm happy just to be back with my teammates."
Hunter became the NFL's youngest player to reach 50 career sacks in 2019, the last time he played a full season. He said last year's torn pectoral muscle, sustained Oct. 31 against the Cowboys, "wasn't as significant" as the herniated disc in his neck that ended his 2020 season. The operation in November on the torn pectoral muscle required a three-month recovery. He said he would've had a chance to play in the postseason had the Vikings qualified.
Hunter did his most recent rehab at TCO Performance Center in Eagan, where running back Dalvin Cook said he saw a determined teammate.
"For him not to get discouraged or down, looking to attack," Cook said. "I'm just glad to have him back. Because y'all know 'D' a monster, so we need him out there."
Signing Smith, who appears healthy after a back injury that preceded the Packers cutting him this offseason, led to "Purple People Eaters 2.0" posts on social media. Smith again set the bar high on Tuesday, saying he and Hunter can be one of the best tandems in the NFL. They'll debut their pregame — and perhaps post-sack — dance moves in the season opener against the Packers, Smith's former team.
"I'm just happy," Smith said. "Things didn't work out there, but it's all good. I get to face them twice a year, man, and I just can't wait. Get a chance to see a lot of my old teammates, but man — it's going to be a big one."
Will Smith spill Green Bay's inside info to Vikings coaches?
"Not yet," he said. "But we'll wait till we get closer to that game."
Hunter hopes Smith's arrival not only boosts the starting defense's production, but also helps develop younger teammates off the bench.
Second-year edge defender Janarius Robinson, a 2021 fourth-round pick, missed his rookie year because of a season-ending injury in August. He called Hunter at the end of the season and asked if he could fly to Houston to train with him. So this offseason, Robinson joined Hunter for workouts, including footwork drills with movement specialist Rischad Whitfield, track running and on-field and weight work at O Athletik, a gym co-owned by Adrian Peterson and Trent Williams, among others.
"He's a different guy," Robinson said of Hunter. "I can say the workouts were pretty crazy. It's something I never really experienced."
The Vikings' new-look 3-4 defense under coordinator Ed Donatell and assistant head coach Mike Pettine — Smith's defensive coordinator in Green Bay in 2019 and '20 — needs D-line depth to come from within. They signed two starters in free agency with Smith and nose tackle Harrison Phillips, but made only one depth addition in the draft, fifth-round pick Esezi Otomewo of the Gophers.
Confidence can only help the younger guys, Hunter reiterated when asked about the transition from former head coach Mike Zimmer to new head coach Kevin O'Connell.
"Everything just builds off that," Hunter added. "They go out there and they know they're going to make plays. They know they're going to do their job and all that stuff. So the biggest thing is just having everybody's spirits up, and then keep confidence in each guy out there."