As we wrap up the OTA segment of the offseason and move closer and closer to mandatory minicamps, the status of star defensive end Danielle Hunter remains a mystery. He hasn’t attended OTAs because he might be holding out, seeking a new contract to better compensate him for the skills that he brings to the Minnesota Vikings’ front four — a unit that looked feckless in his absence last season.
His absence from minicamp is less nationally relevant than Aaron Rodgers‘ holdout, but it would have serious implications for a Vikings defense that relies on his presence this season. Even if Hunter returns, Minnesota lacks a bonafide second pass rusher who can line up across from him. They currently have a rotation filled with younger players like D.J. Wonnum, Patrick Jones II, and Janarius Robinson, who might not be ready to start.
The Vikings have just under $12 million in cap space after signing Bashaud Breeland, so they would have the space to add an experienced veteran pass rusher like Justin Houston. The four-time Pro-Bowler is currently a free agent after a successful season with the Indianapolis Colts. While Houston, 32, still has plenty to give whatever team he ends up on, would he make sense for the Vikings?
The Case for Houston
Last season the Vikings were awful when it came to getting pressure on the quarterback. Yannick Ngakoue finished as their sack leader, and he was only on the team for five games. They could only muster a pressure rate of 21.6%, the lowest in Mike Zimmer’s tenure as head coach. Since then, they have bolstered the edge rusher position through free agency and the draft. All of the players brought in are very inexperienced. Though they are gifted athletically, they will take some coaching and molding by Andre Patterson to reach their true potential.
A big theme for the Vikings this offseason has been to bring in players who could serve as mentors to the younger players on the roster. For example, Patrick Peterson will likely help Cameron Dantzler develop into a true shutdown CB1 like Peterson was in his prime. Houston could have a similar impact with the younger edge rushers, who will likely need a voice in the locker room to help guide them along the way. I can think of no better voice than Houston, who, in his decade in the NFL, has recorded 97.5 sacks, including a season where he led the NFL with 22 sacks.
While he isn’t the same player now as he was back then, he still has plenty in the tank for next season. Houston has totaled 20 sacks as he has transitioned from a 3-4 standup outside linebacker to a 4-3 hand-in-the-dirt defensive end over the past two years with the Colts. Houston likely will not have to play every single down for the Vikings next season. He will be able to pin his ears back and focus on rushing the passer in a rotational system where he can ease his load and allow for the younger pass rushers to get snaps.
If Hunter suits up for the Vikings next season, Houston will have less attention placed on him and will see more one-on-one matchups. He will likely have fewer responsibilities in the run game as Dalvin Tomlinson and Michael Pierce will clog up the middle, and Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr will take care of the rest on the back end.
Houston’s ability to play as both a standup linebacker and defensive end will allow Zimmer to incorporate different looks for the defense. He could potentially use Barr as an outside linebacker in 3-4 looks, utilizing his supreme athleticism to get after the quarterback — something we haven’t seen him do since entering the NFL in 2014.
The Case Against Houston
This offseason, the Vikings have invested over $42 million in the defense and just $4 million on the offensive side of the ball. While I understand that the offense wasn’t the problem last season — they finished in the top 10 in most metrics — the Vikings need to upgrade certain positions on the offense like WR3.
They also spend three of their 11 picks in this year’s draft on pass rushers who they hope will make an immediate impact. They all may be inexperienced, but the fastest way for them to grow is to get on the field and understand the game at an NFL level. While the pass rush last season struggled, if Hunter plays Week 1, they should also return to form with a pass rush rotation on the other side that will be able to stay fresh and toss different looks at opposing tackles all season long.
The Vikings should rather use the money they currently have to extend Harrison Smith for the long term or even work on a deal for star right tackle Brian O’Neill, who is due an extension at the end of this season. They could also use the money to extend Hunter and keep him happy with a reworked deal that pays him his desired amount.
Houston would be a good addition, but Hunter is much younger and a better player who will be around for the long term. If they extend him, he can be a player who the Vikings can build around on the defensive side.