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After signing big contract, Vikings' Hunter takes aim at being 'the best'

Minnesota Vikings defensive lineman Danielle Hunter (99) practicing at Vikings training camp at TCO Performance Center in Eagan, Minn., on July 28, 2018. Brad Rempel / USA TODAY Sports

EAGAN, Minn. — Danielle Hunter doesn't drink, so there was no champagne flowing after he signed a five-year, $72 million contract extension in June.

"I like ginger ale,'' Hunter said. "I had one, maybe two, maybe three."

The celebrating long over, Hunter is ready to take the field in Minnesota's preseason opener Saturday at Denver.

Hunter, 23, will make $1.9 million this season before the extension kicks in for 2019. The average salary of $14.4 million makes him the seventh-highest paid defensive end in the NFL in a 4-3 scheme.

Does a big new deal make Hunter feel he has to step up his game in his fourth NFL season?

"I can't try to go there and be Superman," he said. "You give it all you've got every play, but you have got to do it within the scheme of the defense."

That doesn't mean Hunter doesn't want to be regarded as one of the NFL's best.

"That's the goal of every defensive lineman; they want to be the best at their position," he said. "We want quarterback sacks, we want tackles for loss. But I've got to go out there and keep it in the schematics of the defense and be the best player I can for this team."

For the 6-foot-5, 255-pound Hunter, that likely means more sacks. He had 12.5 in 2016, the most for a Minnesota player since Jared Allen's 22 in 2011. But Hunter slipped to seven sacks last season, even though he played 172 more snaps in his first year as a starter.

Because teams sometimes keyed on him, it provided opportunities for others to make plays, but Hunter will be striving this season to increase his sack total.

"That's a goal for anybody," he said. "Anybody wants to get in double digits in sacks."

Last year's sack leader for the Vikings was Everson Griffen with 13. Griffen, whose average salary of $14.5 million a year is sixth among defensive ends, was elated after Hunter signed his extension but did offer a challenge.

"He's still going to have to bring it because he's still got to beat me in sacks each and every year," Griffen said. "It's always a competition."

Hunter welcomes it.

"Griff says that I'm the person that's always keeping him going because I go out there and I push him," Hunter said. "We push each other. That's what it's about, pushing each other to get better. It's competition, and every year we go out and compete against each other, and that makes the team better."

For Hunter to be better, Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said there still is work to do.

"He needs to not be robotic, not thinking, just going out and playing, like he's been doing in practice," Zimmer said.

Hunter has been working to improve his game. He said in May he was "stronger" and "much more quicker" after several months of sessions with trainer James Cooper.

Between mini-camp in June and the last month's start of training camp, the workouts continued in his hometown of Houston. Hunter said the only break he took was a weekend trip to Los Angeles with family members following the signing of his extension.

"He's way better than he was last year," said Vikings tackle Rashod Hill, who regularly competes against Hunter in practice. "He's taken his game to another level. He's stronger. He's agile, he's quicker. I'm thinking Danielle is going to get 12 sacks this season. Maybe more than that."

The pressure might have increased for Hunter to deliver after signing his big deal. Then again, Minnesota defensive end Brian Robison, entering his 12th season, looks at it differently.

"I think he's going to come out here and he's going to do well," Robison said. "He's going to go out there and just play ball. At the end of the day, really and truly, the contract (extension) should take pressure off of you."

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