One of the main reasons for optimism surrounding the Minnesota Vikings in 2021 is Danielle Hunter’s return. As one of the league’s top edge rushers, his return paired with Michael Pierce’s debut is something that the team hopes brings their defense back to a top-10 level.
The pursuit of defense is a good idea for a team ranked 30th in total yards last season but shouldn’t be the main focus. In today’s NFL, teams win games through their offense, and it’s no surprise that the top nine teams in scoring found their way into the playoffs this season. While Minnesota probably can’t win with the same defense they had a year ago, they might be able to make up for it with Deshaun Watson’s addition.
Watson is one of the brightest stars in the NFL and just threw for 4,823 yards, 33 touchdowns, and seven interceptions. After the Houston Texans ignored Watson and a search firm’s suggestion on a new general manager, he reportedly wants to force his way out of Houston. While Kirk Cousins was more than adequate for the Vikings last season, Watson is a different breed that can help the Vikings go from perennial 10-6 team to Super Bowl contenders.
At its core, adding a rising superstar like Watson makes sense for a team like the Vikings. Unfortunately, the team’s salary cap and draft pick situation make things difficult. But what if the Vikings had an ace up their sleeve? Something that could allow them to deal Cousins and draft picks to Houston and then turn around and get them right back? Fortunately, they have one in Danielle Hunter.
When Hunter went down with “a tweak” in the preseason, which turned out to be a herniated disc in his neck, and he took the entire defensive line down with it. His 14.5 sacks that Hunter recorded in each of the past two seasons would have nearly tripled Vikings sack leader Yannick Ngakoue, who was on the roster for six games.
Needless to say, the concept of trading Hunter isn’t something that Mike Zimmer would be too keen on. But the entire picture paints a different story.
Three years after signing a 5-year, $72 million contract, Hunter has seen other pass rushers like Myles Garrett, Joey Bosa, and DeMarcus Lawrence take home contracts over $100 million. That’s why it wasn’t a surprise to see Zeke Sandhu quickly point this out moments after Hunter was placed in the post-op room last October.
Sandhu has a point by saying that Hunter is underpaid and doesn’t have ground to stand on. With three years remaining on the deal and the collective bargaining agreement establishing harsher penalties for holdouts, the most likely scenario is Hunter walking into camp with his head down and accepting the $17.75 million he’s due to make next season.
But the Vikings have bent over backward in the past to make their current players happy. In 2017, they tore up Everson Griffen’s contract to give him $58 million over four years. More recently, Minnesota somehow found money to extend Kyle Rudolph (4-years, $36 million) after he griped about his contract. They even found a way to pay Dalvin Cook last summer.
In Hunter’s mind, he may be the next in line.
That’s not an easy thing for the Vikings to do at the moment. With the NFL’s salary cap projected to be as low as $175 million, Minnesota is currently $14 million over the cap, according to Spotrac. Even if the Vikings decide to release Riley Reiff and Rudolph, they would still have only $6 million in cap space, which doesn’t seem to be enough for a Hunter extension.
If things get ugly, a trade may be an avenue that the Vikings decide to explore, and it could come in handy if general manager Rick Spielman kicks the tires on Watson.
Even if the Vikings aren’t willing to pay what it takes to get Watson, it’s a phone call that Spielman has to make. Watson is a 25-year-old superstar quarterback in a league where teams are trying to find the next Patrick Mahomes. While Watson may not be on that same level, he’s at least in the same quarterback tier (ask Chicago Bears fans) and would give Minnesota an instant upgrade on offense.
The big question would be what the Vikings would have to give up to acquire a player like Watson. If the Texans end up hiring Josh McDaniels, Adam Gase, and Matt Patricia, as Eric Mangini suggests, we could have an answer thanks to their prior history.
The Watson situation is eerily similar for McDaniels to the one he inherited with Jay Cutler in Denver. After upsetting Cutler by pursuing a trade for Matt Cassel, McDaniels shipped him to Chicago for Kyle Orton, two first-round picks, and a third-round pick.
Such a trade is one that the Vikings could afford to make with 11 selections in the 2021 NFL Draft before compensatory picks. While they only have five or six picks, depending on the Yannick Ngakoue trade, in next year’s draft, it’s a situation where Spielman could send off Cousins and the picks and then stockpile for 2022 with his infamous trade downs.
It sounds simple, but that’s where things get difficult. Unlike Orton, Cousins comes with a $31 million cap hit in 2021. That number is nearly double the $15.9 cap hit that Watson will carry next season. To make matters worse, the Texans are projected to be $20 million over the salary cap heading into 2021.
And to make matters worse, trading Watson would also carry a $5 million cap penalty for next season, which would land Houston $41 million over the salary cap. It’s not quite the New Orleans Saints’ cap situation, but it’s pretty bad and another deterrent when it comes to dealing Watson.
But bear with me here. If the Vikings deal their high draft picks for Watson, where does it leave the rest of the roster? They could replace holes at guard, defensive tackle and cornerback in free agency, but it might not leave enough cap room to field a competitive team in 2022 and beyond.
Here’s where the potential trade of Hunter comes in. Over the past several years, we’ve seen key edge rushers get traded for massive hauls. In 2019, the Kansas City Chiefs gave up a first, a second, and swapped third-round picks with the Seattle Seahawks to acquire Frank Clark. The deal worked out well for Kansas City but also gave Seattle a surplus of early draft picks.
In 2018 the then-Oakland Raiders acquired two first-round picks, a third-round pick, and a sixth-round pick for Khalil Mack. While Chicago acquired Mack to transform their defense, the Raiders got enough to construct the roster the way they wanted during a full rebuild.
For Hunter, the potential compensation could lie somewhere between the Clark and Mack deals. As a 26-year-old who collected sacks faster than anyone in NFL history, there’s a value in acquiring Hunter. But the Vikings would also be selling low one year after coming off a serious neck injury. If they could get something close to the Clark deal, which would recoup a first-round pick and add the second-rounder lost in the Ngakoue trade, it might be worth it if they believed they were in rebuild mode.
Losing Hunter would be rough, but this is a situation where the Vikings could find a palatable replacement — someone who could produce average production in Hunter’s place. And with co-defensive coordinator Andre Patterson selecting an annual “pet cat,” one of his developmental players could eventually take this role.
While it would be feasible to replace Hunter adequately, there might not be a better upgrade available than Watson. Even if the Vikings decided to take a quarterback at pick No. 14, there’s no guarantee that he would be as good as Watson. After throwing for nearly 5,000 yards to Brandin Cooks, Will Fuller, and David Johnson’s corpse, the upgrade to Justin Jefferson, Adam Thielen and Dalvin Cook would make the Vikings offense near unstoppable and worth the investment.
The whole scenario seems like a pipe dream for Viking fans, but if it meant acquiring a top-shelf quarterback such as Watson, it’s something they would have to consider.