Breaking Down Danielle Hunter's Contract

Photo Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn (USA TODAY Sports)

Minnesota Vikings offseason mandatory minicamp kicks off Tuesday, and as first reported by James Jones, Danielle Hunter will be there thanks to a newly-reworked contract. Unlike Aaron Rodgers, Hunter is not holding out.

Hunter had reportedly demanded a new contract that would have made him the highest-paid defender in football. And after Hunter skipped Vikings organized team activities (OTAs), foregoing a $100,000 workout bonus in doing so, it looked for a moment as if a contentious holdout were imminent.

But Rob Brzezinski and the Vikings seem to have won the staring contest, getting Hunter to report to minicamp without offering any new money. Here’s what that new contract looks like and what it means for Hunter’s future in Minnesota:

Why Hunter Wanted a New Contract

Hunter was one of the most underpaid veterans in the NFL. After signing his extension back in 2018, Hunter racked up 14.5 sacks in each of 2018 and 2019, third-most in the NFL, earning back-to-back Pro Bowl appearances. In December 2019, Hunter became the youngest player in NFL history to reach 50 career sacks. In 2019, Hunter earned the seventh-best PFF grade among edge defenders and recorded the second-most pressures in the NFL.

Hunter missed all of last season after requiring surgery to clean up a herniated disc in his neck, but his absence only proved how much the team missed him. After racking up the third-most sacks in 2018 and sixth-most in 2019, last year’s Vikings recorded the fifth-fewest sacks in 2020. And after posting the eight-best team pass-rush grade in 2019, the Vikings ranked dead last in team pass-rush grade last season.

Heading into next year, Hunter was projected to have only the 17th-highest average salary among current edge rushers. So it’s understandable why Hunter might have felt disrespected by his contract when Joey Bosa was set to make almost exactly twice as much as him. And more than just a pay raise, Hunter probably wanted added guarantees as well — particularly after a season lost to injury.

Why the Vikings Played Hardball

Hunter didn’t have much leverage, and the Vikings knew it. The new collective bargaining agreement between the NFL and the NFLPA now allows teams to fine players $93,085 for missing the three-day mandatory minicamp that kicks off on Tuesday. More importantly, the new CBA now forces teams to fine players $50,000 for every day of preseason training camp that a player misses. And unlike the minicamp fines, those training camp fines cannot be waived by the team — even if the parties come to an agreement down the road, that money is gone forever.

Moreover, Hunter was in a really tough spot asking for a pay raise with three years remaining on his contract. As a matter of course, the Vikings do not renegotiate contracts with three or more years remaining. They have shown a willingness to do their underpaid players right by giving them a raise two years out, as they did with Adam Thielen. But with Hunter signed through 2023, coming off a season lost due to injury, they largely stuck to their guns. And it paid off.

What the Reworked Contract Does

As first reported by Ian Rapoport, Hunter’s new contract does two things. First, it converts $5.6 million of Hunter’s 2021 salary to a signing bonus. Second, it adds an $18 million roster bonus that triggers on the fifth day of the 2022 league year.

The signing bonus means Hunter gets that $5.6 million now, fully guaranteed, while the Vikings get to spread that $5.6 million cap hit evenly over the next three years. So Hunter’s 2021 cap hit is lowered by $3.73 million, from $17.15 million to $13.42 million, while his 2022 and 2023 cap hits are increased by $1.87 million each. Unlike other veteran holdouts like Julio Jones or Antonio Brown, Hunter is not receiving any new money this year.

The bigger change is that Hunter will now earn $18 million on the fifth day of the 2022 league year. Functionally, this doesn’t actually change how much money Hunter is due on his current contract, as Tom Pelissero reported that the reworked contract involves no new money. Instead, presumably, Hunter’s 2022 salary is reduced from $12.125 million to the veteran minimum, while Hunter’s 2023 salary is reduced by another $7 million, and Hunter will now earn all that money instantly in March of 2022 (if the Vikings haven’t cut him yet). So on the surface, it’s the same amount of money. Hunter just earns some of it a little sooner.

But practically, that roster bonus becomes a significant deadline since the Vikings are going to want to make a decision on Hunter’s future before that bonus gets paid, and they can no longer use it as leverage in an extension negotiation or save that money by trading (or even cutting) Hunter. So while he is not getting any new money on paper, in reality, Hunter is in line to earn a major new contract before mid-March — with the Vikings or otherwise.

What’s Next For Hunter

That new 2022 roster bonus means the Vikings will have to decide on Hunter’s future within the next nine months. The way I see it, once the 2021 season wraps up, the Vikings will have four options on the table:

  1. Extend him
  2. Trade him
  3. Cut him
  4. Let him play out his original contract

Cutting Hunter seems fairly unlikely unless he suffers another injury-related setback. We’ve written before about that possibility, but it seems unlikely right now — particularly since Minnesota was willing to convert some of Hunter’s 2021 salary to signing bonus. That signing bonus conversion means the Vikings would suffer an additional $3.5 million dead cap penalty in 2022 if they were to cut Hunter, and I don’t think they take on that risk if they were seriously considering the possibility of cutting Hunter after this year. In total, they would incur a $10.5 million dead cap penalty by cutting Hunter next year. That said, cutting him would still clear $20 million in cap space by getting that $18 million roster bonus and minimum salary off the books, and the dead cap penalty would be a sunk cost at that point. So if Hunter doesn’t return to form and holds no value as a trade asset, a cut could be very possible. But assuming Hunter bounces back, the Vikings simply aren’t going to cut him.

Letting Hunter play out his original contract also seems unlikely, given that Hunter would carry a cap hit of over $20 million next year. That contract will be very tough to squeeze in under the 2022 salary cap, as the Vikings currently have nearly $195 million in salary cap commitments for next year in just the top 51. Moreover, it would lead them right back to the controversy they just escaped from — Hunter would threaten another holdout without a new contract. It might seem like an appealing option on paper as Hunter’s current contract is still a very team-friendly bargain, but in practicality, both the Vikings and Hunter would benefit from a new deal.

Trading Hunter could be possible, depending on a few factors. Will the Vikings be comfortable paying Hunter $20 million next year while also paying Kirk Cousins twice that, or will they want some salary-cap relief? Will D.J. Wonnum, Patrick Jones II, Janarius Robinson, or others be ready for a starting role in 2022? Or will the Vikings still be relying on Hunter for most of their pass rush threat? Will someone offer a Khalil Mack or Frank Clark-type trade involving two first-round picks? If the Vikings are happy with Hunter’s potential replacements next year and someone makes an offer they can’t refuse, Hunter could be shipped out the same way Stefon Diggs was.

But what I think is by far most likely is that the Vikings give Hunter a top-of-the-market extension next March. That’s the same approach they took with Thielen, who signed a 3-year, $17 million extension in March of 2017. While it seemed like a fair (if very cheap) deal at the time, Thielen went on to have back-to-back Pro Bowl seasons in 2017 and 2018, and it quickly became apparent that Thielen was dramatically underpaid. So after the 2018 season, the Vikings did the right thing and gave Thielen a major pay raise on a 4-year, $64 million extension. It wasn’t quite top-of-the-line money, Thielen was still only the sixth-highest-paid receiver at the time, but it brought his contract back in line with the value he brought on the field.

Right now, Hunter is following the same blueprint: Hunter signed a five-year, $72 million contract extension in 2018, which seems like a fair (if very cheap) deal at the time. Hunter went on to have back-to-back Pro Bowl seasons in 2018 and 2019. And I suspect once Hunter is down to two years remaining on his contract, the Vikings will do the right thing again and give him a major pay raise on a multi-year extension.

And like with Thielen, a new extension need not make Hunter the highest-paid player at his position in the NFL. If the Vikings wanted to follow Thielen’s blueprint to a T, a 4-year, $100 million extension would provide a nice, eye-popping number; would sign Hunter through 2027 when Hunter would turn 33; and would bring Hunter’s remaining average salary over the next six years to nearly $21 million per year. Hunter would still fall short of Bosa’s $27 million per year average under that contract, but, like Thielen, Hunter would still rank as the fifth-highest-paid edge defender in the NFL.

The extension would also enable the Vikings to space out Hunter’s cap hits to avoid a 2022 cap crunch while also backweighting the larger cap hits for future years once the salary cap rebounds with the new TV deal money. Hunter might counter with a demand for Bosa money. But I think with sufficient guarantees, the prospect of finishing his career in Minnesota while still being one of the NFL’s highest-paid defenders might entice him to sign.

And ultimately, that’s what I think will happen. I expect Hunter to bounce back to his former Pro Bowl-caliber level of play, earning his way into a nine-figure extension. And I think the Vikings will be happy to make Hunter happy, the same way they were with Thielen.

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