The 2019 free agency class could have exploded in Rick Spielman’s face.
With Trae Waynes, Eric Kendricks, Danielle Hunter, Stefon Diggs and Anthony Barr all set to have contracts expire after the 2018 season, the Vikings could have found themselves swiftly depleted of talent shortly after an NFC Championship run that was built off the back of the most consistent starting defensive unit in the NFL.
Since then, the Vikings have found a way to relieve the pressure by activating Waynes’ fifth-year option and extending Kendricks. By extending Hunter, they’ve been able to add to that security – and to a team-friendly deal, to boot.
With a $72 million deal that can escalate to $78 million with incentives – likely tied to All-Pro appearances and sack totals – Hunter carries an average cap hit of $14.4 million over the course of his five-year deal.
In the current cap environment, that’s an excellent deal for a starting pass rusher with his upside and history of production. One can compare his average salary to that of other top pass rushers by looking at the percentage of the cap space they consumed with their average salary in the year that they signed.
|Player||Team||Year||Total||Avg||% of Cap|
But what exactly does Hunter have to do to “justify” his salary? If we follow the next three years of his career, we’ll probably come away with some intuitive understanding of whether or not he met the expectations thrust upon him by fans.
That wouldn’t be fair to his contract, however. What expectations does a pass-rusher have when they consume 8.1 percent of their team’s cap space, historically?
One can look at the total number of adjusted pressures — which in this case means total pressures with a penalty for non-sack pressures, like hits and hurries — produced by a player in the three years following their second contract, as well as their PFF score and come up with rough equations to simulate both.
Below, we can see the “expected” performances from those players and the actual performances to see which ones outperformed their contract and which ones fell short.
|Player||Year||% of Cap||Exp Pressure||Pressures +/-||Exp PFF Grade||Grade +/-||Value Score|
|Michael Bennett (2014)||2014||5.4%||109.2||45.6||14.9||7.8||114.4|
|Everson Griffen (2014)||2014||6.4%||114.2||45.5||17.7||1.2||111.3|
|Cliff Avril (2015)||2015||5.0%||107.0||8.7||13.7||-8.8||97.2|
|Brian Robison (2014)||2014||4.2%||102.3||21.2||0.8||-18.7||95.3|
|Junior Galette (2015)||2015||7.2%||117.8||-89.3||19.8||-12.4||75.5|
In order to flatly meet his contract’s value, Hunter should approximately put up 120 adjusted pressures over three years — which amounts to about 23 sacks — or only 40 adjusted pressures (eight sacks) per year. That amount would be a disappointment from the perspective of fan expectation, but would give the Vikings almost exactly what they paid for.
For context, that’s approximately the production of Jerry Hughes and Mario Addison over the past three years. If one only looks at Pro Football Focus grades, that’s the overall performance put up by Robert Ayers and William Hayes. A good approximation for a player who has met their contract value at around the price Hunter demanded is Ryan Kerrigan.
What is the likelihood that Hunter meets his contract?
Well, we can look at all pass rushers who debuted between 2006-15 to see where he ranks in terms of his three-year production to give us some idea.
The below table is sortable — like every table here — and the default sort is “disruptions per snap.” I’ve defined disruptions as an action that directly stopped a play, which in this case means sacks, batted passes and “run stops” — a tackle in the run game for a run that constitutes a loss for the offense. There’s also Pro Football Focus Grade and Pass Rusher Productivity, a PFF measure that takes all the pressures a player creates, adds a bonus for sacks, and divides by total pass-rushing snaps.
I’ve also included a “Sim Score” that ranks players according to how close they were to Hunter in the below categories (and a few others, like total snaps, total pressures and so on).
The lower the number, the closer a player’s first three years are to Hunter’s.
Ranking second in disruptions per snap, 11th in PFF grade and 10th in total pressures, Hunter is well-positioned to do well based on measures that have done a good job predicting performance.
The closest players outside of Hunter’s draft class are Ezekiel Ansah, Greg Hardy, Jason Pierre-Paul, Chandler Jones, Lamarr Houston, Darryl Tapp and Justin Houston. That’s a pretty strong cohort, all things considered. Aside from Lamarr Houston — who played multiple seasons at defensive tackle — and Darryl Tapp, Hunter’s most similar players have had multiple double-digit sack seasons.
We know what Hunter’s overall expectations are and which players best matched his opening three seasons, and we can use this information to figure out if the players who followed his path ended up meeting the expectations set by his contract.
Once we exclude Hardy for off-field reasons and Justin Houston for switching positions, we have five players to compare Hunter to. That gives us 13 evaluable seasons — production from their fourth, fifth and sixth years in the NFL, minus a season from Justin Houston because of injury and Ansah because the 2018 season hasn’t been played yet — to compare Hunter’s contract expectations.
Six of those 13 seasons saw over 40 adjusted pressures. Seven of those fell short, including three from Tapp. Only five seasons met the PFF grade predicted by the salary cap hit, making it a harder target to hit. In addition to what his peers put together, Hunter himself hit those marks in the 2016 and 2017 seasons.
The Vikings did an excellent job locking down promising young pass rusher Hunter for what is essentially a contract that demands slightly above-average production. Because of that, the Vikings are very likely to get value from their extension — if Hunter merely repeats his 2017 season, he’ll have met the demands of his salary.
Given his extraordinary ceiling and room to grow, he could shatter those expectations.