Monday marked the beginning of legal tampering, and thus the beginning of free-agent frenzy in the NFL. While the Minnesota Vikings come into the period with roughly $12 million in cap space, they’ve been linked with various big-ticket free agents. Per The Athletic’s Chad Graff, the Vikings are prepared to be aggressive in free agency.
Hearing that sounds great on the surface, but it may not be great in practice.
Graff also reported on Monday that Danielle Hunter has grown increasingly unhappy with his current contract situation. As it stands right now, Hunter is the ninth-highest-paid defensive end in the league, averaging around $14.4 million a year. That certainly isn’t a figure to scoff at, but given his production and market value, it’s hard to argue he doesn’t deserve a better deal.
The defensive end market has ballooned over the last five years. We’ve seen the likes of Joey Bosa and Myles Garrett snag contracts of over $25 million average annually despite neither posting sack totals like Hunter has.
That’s not slight against Bosa or Garrett; it just shows how productive Hunter has been. At 25, he was the youngest player in NFL history to reach 50 career sacks. Needless to say, he’s on a Hall of Fame trajectory, and anybody who watched the Vikings last season saw how much the defense missed him.
Minnesota literally went from fifth in team defense in 2019 when Hunter had 14.5 sacks to 29th in 2020 when Hunter didn’t play. Hunter wasn’t the only starter absent from last year’s squad, but Mike Zimmer’s defense was exposed every single game for not having the elite edge rusher that he usually has.
Think about if Hunter would have played in 2020. Ask yourself, Would the corners have looked as bad? or Would the run defense have been as terrible? I’d venture to say that that wouldn’t have been the case because having an edge rusher like Hunter on the field makes everyone around him better.
So while it’s awesome to see the Vikings going out and testing free agency, Rick Spielman’s biggest concern right now should be restructuring Hunter’s deal.
Right now, the biggest issue is how the Vikings put the math together. Their front office is notorious for being magicians with the cap, but making Hunter one of the highest-paid defensive ends in the league while remaining under it would be one of their crowning achievements.
The good news is there are a lot of things going Spielman’s way to make this happen. First off, the league is going to have a new television contract going into next season. Nothing is finalized yet, but reports have ESPN paying nearly $2.6 billion for Monday Night Football. NBC, CBS, and FOX will pay around $2.2 billion, and Amazon is expected to pay well above the current Thursday Night Football rate.
TV revenue is a massive piece of the yearly cap space pie, and next year’s cap will likely be the highest ever. With this information in mind, the Vikings can get creative about where the money is added to Hunter’s contract.
Specifically, Spielman can backload the final two years of his deal to mirror that annual salary he’s looking for without compromising the team this season.
Depending on what Minnesota wants to do with its $12 million in cap space left, a portion of that could be converted to a signing bonus this season. Let’s say $3 million, making this year’s cap hit a tad over $20 million.
Then restructure the final two years so that Hunter reaches that $25 million a year in the final two years. There should be cap space given that Spielman restructured Barr’s contract to make him a free agent in 2022 and take him off the books. A three-year, $65 million restructure should make Hunter happy and not compromise the team’s position during this free-agency period.
That’s just a hypothetical of what a deal could look like, but as long as the Vikings can pay him, that’s all that matters. Hunter isn’t the type of player that comes by too often, and Minnesota needs to treat him accordingly.
For Hunter, it appears as though he wants to stay in the Twin Cities, but he also wants the respect he has earned. You can point to his injury that forced him to sit out the entirety of last season as a concern, but I wholeheartedly believe he’ll come back from the injury and be an absolute beast in 2021.
For Minnesota, it’s about keeping him on their side. He’s got the talent, a track record of production, and is young. It’s time for Spielman to get out the checkbook and do what’s right. It’s time to give Hunter what he deserves.