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Vikings not declaring rebuild; DE Hunter has neck surgery

MINNEAPOLIS — The Minnesota Vikings emerged from their bye week down two starting defensive ends, after a salary-dump trade of Yannick Ngakoue and a season-ending surgery for Danielle Hunter.

Though they’re much closer to having the top pick in the next draft than qualifying for the expanded playoffs, Vikings leaders have so far declined to declare this a rebuilding year.

Coach Mike Zimmer confirmed Wednesday that defensive end Danielle Hunter, a two-time Pro Bowl pick at age 25, had an operation Tuesday that went as planned to repair a herniated disk in his neck.

“I don’t know exactly the timetable, but he should be back and playing football again,” Zimmer said.

Hunter was hurt in practice at the beginning of training camp, vaguely described then by Zimmer as a “tweak.” That’s because, the coach said Wednesday, Hunter merely “woke up and thought he slept on his neck wrong.” When the discomfort didn’t subside, a subsequent MRI surprisingly revealed the more serious injury.

“It was hardly anything, when we looked back at the tape,” Zimmer said, adding: “It could have happened to anybody at any point.”

Ngakoue, who was acquired Aug. 30 from Jacksonville, was dealt last week to Baltimore. For six games with Ngakoue, who’s on track to become a free agent in the spring, the net result for the Vikings was downgrading their 2021 second-round draft pick to a third-rounder.

Now, instead of pairing an entering-their-prime tandem in Hunter and Ngakoue — who have a combined 97 sacks in 147 regular-season games — the Vikings will take on a decidedly developmental look at these vital positions over the next 10 weeks. Ifeadi Odenigbo is the most accomplished player left, with 23 career regular-season games of experience. Jalyn Holmes and D.J. Wonnum, fourth-round picks in 2018 and 2020, will play heavily in the rotation the rest of the way.

The Vikings were already replacing five starters on defense this year, before Hunter and four-time Pro Bowl linebacker Anthony Barr (torn pectoral muscle) had their season-ending surgeries. Several backups have been hurt, too. The defense has been uncharacteristically vulnerable, by far the worst group in Zimmer’s seven seasons by most statistical measures.

“These young guys are fighting through it, and we’re trying to get better and doing the best we can here,” Zimmer said.

Neither Zimmer nor general manager Rick Spielman nor any of the key players interviewed over the past 10 days since the stunningly lopsided loss at home to previously winless Atlanta have acknowledged a shift toward prioritizing draft position or developing young players over competing in 2020. The lineups on the field might well tell a different story the rest of the way.

“We want to win as many games as we can and that’s going to be our objective for the year,” said Spielman, who received a three-year contract extension along with Zimmer this summer.

The Vikings (1-5) play Sunday at division-leading Green Bay (5-1).

“We’ve lost a few good players this year, so that part is what it is,” Zimmer said, adding: “We just go out there and try to fight like crazy and try and get these guys better every day.”