How Risky Is It To Pay Danielle Hunter?

Photo Credit: Jeffrey Becker (USA TODAY Sports)

As the Minnesota Vikings’ offseason has gone on, a specter has loomed over every decision. Danielle Hunter wants a new contract. He’s coming off of a season-ending herniated disk in his neck. He’s criminally underpaid. It puts the Vikings in an awkward situation: Do they risk a huge payday for a player who might not be able to play, do they try to paper the situation over until they can be assured of his health, or do they ship him off to the highest bidder to rid themselves of the headache?

If the Vikings wanted to, they could pay Hunter as the top-five edge rusher he deserves to be. In all likelihood, the signing bonus that would require would reduce Hunter’s 2021 cap number. It’s a significant future investment, however, and would probably require some guaranteed money. As easy as it is to leap to this conclusion, the salary cap isn’t the issue here. The Vikings can afford to pay Hunter alongside Kirk Cousins, Patrick Peterson, and any other contract you’re mad about.

The problem is in principle. Can you risk money on the unknown of Danielle Hunter? There are a few things to dive into there. Not among them is Hunter’s on-field value, which has been proven several times over. Nor is Minnesota’s ability to pay Hunter if they were so motivated. But to make a truly good decision, we have to consider the nature of neck injuries and the full matrix of possible outcomes.

Hunter’s Herniated Disk

In August of 2020, Mike Zimmer explained Danielle Hunter’s absence from camp as “a little tweak.” That quote became somewhat infamous as Hunter’s injury was revealed to be more serious. Was Zimmer lying to us? Does he just not know what he’s talking about? Was he downplaying Hunter’s toughness? In reality, it’s an expected way for a herniated disk to play out.

Rubbery cushions of tissue called disks separate your vertebrae. Those disks have a rubbery, tough exterior meant to cushion the bones from rubbing against each other. On the interior is a jelly-like nucleus. You can think of them as little jelly donuts separating all of your vertebrae. If that exterior tears or “herniates,” some of that jelly can leak out. That in and of itself is not that painful until that leaking jelly irritates a nerve. Unfortunately, this injury happens near the spine, where all the nerves are.

Herniated disks can happen without any symptoms at all. It’s entirely possible that Hunter’s disk tore long before he felt any pain at all. If that jelly doesn’t end up irritating a nerve, it’ll never present. You or I might have a herniated disk our whole lives that we never know about. This study finds that 73% of adults have some degeneration in their spine. Athletes in the trenches, who experience more compression, twisting, and lifting, are at a higher risk. When the gelatinous interior started to leak out, it probably caused some minor pain, akin to neck soreness after an awkward sleep. Over time, it would grow.

So when Zimmer called it a “tweak,” he was probably going off of Hunter’s reported pain level. The human body is very good at patching itself up, and herniated disks can often heal without surgery. The decision to get the surgery in October would not be taken lightly. That surgery was likely a microdiscectomy. That means they open him up and clear out all that loose gelatinous material.

The thing about herniated disks is that they can reoccur. J.J. Watt had to have a second microdiscectomy because of this. The main reason for this is similar to every re-aggravated injury: Players want to come back too soon. Recommended recovery time is seven to 12 weeks, likely ending the player’s season. There’s not only a ton of exterior pressure to be tough and get back on the field but there also could be six or seven-figure contract incentives influencing the decision. Not to mention, the use (perhaps abuse) of Toradol and other painkillers can cause players to overestimate their readiness to return.

In Hunter’s case, this didn’t come up. His season ended, no question. But he is still at increased risk. Microdiscectomies don’t fix the gap in the patient’s spinal disk. They clear out the jelly, but doctors can’t surgically repair the donut itself. They just have to hope that the disk heals on its own or that no more jelly leaks out. For J.J. Watt, more jelly leaked out, and they had to go back in and clear it out again. The Vikings have no real way to know if the same will happen to Hunter or not.

In a regular person, the risk of reaggravation is 5-10%. For athletes, it can be much higher. For a defensive end who will experience repeated spine compressions, torque, and other general stress, it might never be safe again. But it could also be absolutely nothing. It depends on the size of the hole in the disk’s exterior and its general fragility. But there’s no real best way to navigate that risk. The Vikings have to either take it, or they don’t.

Risk factors

For the sake of argument, let’s call it a 20% chance that Hunter’s injury continues to plague him, double that of a layperson. That’s a significant risk factor, and, understandably, the Vikings would be hesitant to invest in it. So if they wanted to be conservative, what would their decision be?

If the Vikings simply sat on their hands and did nothing, they risk Hunter holding out or demanding a trade. Trading Hunter just takes the opposite end of the risk. In the 80% of outcomes where Hunter’s injury heals normally, the Vikings lose out since they’d have sold the injured Hunter at a discounted price. They lose out on much less since they’d have gotten draft picks and cap savings, but the odds of experiencing that outcome are higher.

The decision may seem like a difficult one between high-risk-high-reward and safe-but-conservative. But if we actually examine the risks and rewards, prisoner’s dilemma-style, we can see that the answer is clear. The reward for keeping Hunter is, well, Danielle Hunter. The reward for trading him would necessarily be less, as teams wouldn’t offer the full price for damaged goods. If the Vikings opt to stare Hunter down, the reward would be Danielle Hunter at a possible lesser price, provided they win the staredown.

The punishments for those three options are also stark. If they keep Hunter and his injury comes back, he’ll miss more time. If they trade him, the bad outcome mostly exists in the eyes of the media and fans. Either way, they got their draft picks. If they stare Hunter down, they risk severing the relationship entirely and losing even more value in a demanded trade.

Thinking of it this way, the most aggressive option is to stare Hunter down. Try to get him to agree to a cheaper deal to account for the risk, and the Vikings could get the optimal outcome. But in doing so, they risk fracturing their relationship with the most talented player on the team. Extending Hunter mitigates this risk, as counterintuitive as it seems. They pay a little more to remove the possible tension. Either way, they’re risking the injury. If they cave to Hunter’s demands, they can avoid risking anything else.

The true safe option would be to trade Hunter away. Of the worst-case outcomes, this one has the highest floor. But does anyone think the best option is to sell low on a prized asset? If the Vikings are interested in mediocrity, trading Hunter is a great way to guarantee it.

The Vikings have a tough decision to make. I don’t envy Rick Spielman and his staff for having to parse out nebulous medical information with concrete value judgments. But when it comes to avoiding risk, paying Hunter mitigates risk, even though it invests further into that nebulous situation. Combine that with Rob Brzezinski’s ability to maximize contract value and his creative structuring, and a solution can be reached. The Vikings just have to decide that they want to.

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