When players report to minicamp this week, the Minnesota Vikings hope that Danielle Hunter will join them. Hunter is coming off a neck injury that wiped out his entire 2020 season, and the sight of him returning to the field would give them optimism heading into next year.
But Hunter’s offseason has involved much more than rehab. The 27-year-old reportedly wants to be the highest-paid defensive end in the NFL, and the Vikings haven’t budged. As a result, Hunter isn’t likely to report on Monday, bringing back memories of a fellow 2015 draft pick who became disgruntled with the organization — Stefon Diggs.
There is one difference between the two situations, however. The Vikings need Danielle Hunter more than they needed Stefon Diggs.
The Diggs situation was one of the Vikings’ own creation. Diggs was the hero who caught the Minneapolis Miracle and paired with Adam Thielen, he was part of one of the best wide receiver duos in the NFL. He was a key fixture of the Vikings’ offense when Kirk Cousins arrived a year later.
But the Vikings never treated Diggs like a true No. 1 receiver. Instead, Kevin Stefanski used Diggs exclusively as a deep threat, and he posted alpha receiver numbers but didn’t get the volume that Thielen received. This led to Diggs skipping OTAs before the 2019 season.
Although Diggs put together a career season, the Vikings decided to trade him to the Buffalo Bills the following offseason. Why would they choose to trade a 26-year-old receiver entering the prime of his career? Because he was easier to replace.
The Vikings knew they were heading into a strong WR draft class. Yes, landing Justin Jefferson involved a little bit of luck, but the Vikings would have been fine if they had taken Brandon Aiyuk or Chase Claypool instead.
That’s not the case when it comes to Hunter. After he “tweaked” his neck during training camp, the Vikings’ defense imploded — especially when it came to rushing the passer.
Minnesota collected just 26 sacks on the season. Newly acquired Yannick Ngakoue wasn’t able to make up for losing their star DE, and he was dealt to the Baltimore Ravens during the bye week. Even as they tried to soften the blow with their developmental players, none of them could provide the same impact as Hunter, who has become one of the game’s top pass rushers.
Hunter reached a double-digit sack total three times in his first five seasons. Hunter was a key cog in the defense with 14.5 sacks during each of the 2018 and 2019 seasons. But, he didn’t just put up numbers; he made the players around him better.
If he returns, it could have a big impact across the defensive line. Offensive linemen would have to focus on Hunter on one end, creating opportunities for Stephen Weatherly and D.J. Wonnum to increase their sack totals. While teams focus on the outside, Michael Pierce and Dalvin Tomlinson could get one-on-one matchups in the middle of the line, allowing them to create penetration.
A rejuvenated defensive line could also help the back end of the defense. With the interior moving linemen out of the way, Eric Kendricks could have an even bigger season. In addition, the revamped secondary would benefit from quarterbacks having less time to throw, which could create more opportunities for Harrison Smith and Xavier Woods to make plays.
Looking at Minnesota’s current depth chart, there’s not a backup plan if Hunter holds out. The Vikings could sign Melvin Ingram to try and replace Hunter’s production, but he doesn’t carry the All-Pro upside that Hunter has.
Even if they traded Hunter for a haul of draft picks, the Vikings would be selecting from an edge rusher class full of projects. It’s unlikely one of those picks would contribute at the same level that Hunter has.
In the end, there has to be something the Vikings and Hunter can do to make this work. It may come down to Minnesota realizing that he is not replaceable and giving him the raise he wants.