Vikings

There’s One Way To Handle Danielle Hunter’s Contract

Photo Credit: Denny Medley (USA TODAY Sports)

The Minnesota Vikings will undergo significant changes on the defensive side of the ball this offseason given their cap situation and after they named Brian Flores as their new defensive coordinator. Many of the players on Minnesota’s defense are aging holdovers from the Mike Zimmer era. Danielle Hunter is one of those players, and his current contract puts the Vikings in an interesting situation.

Contract Situation

Hunter initially signed a five-year, $72 million extension in 2018. However, coming off of an injured 2020 season, Hunter was reportedly unhappy with his deal, and he negotiated with then-GM Rick Spielman to hopefully force a decision on the contract before the 2022 season. The result was an $18 million roster bonus that triggered early in the 2022 league year. New GM Kwesi Adofo-Mensah, not beholden to the previous negotiations, decided to keep Hunter’s contract on and eat the entirety of the roster bonus, which was later converted into a signing bonus to create cap space in 2022.

These actions led to the current situation: The Vikings owe Hunter about $13 million against the cap in 2023 (all cap information in this article is from Over the Cap), and stand to owe him about $11 million in 2024, when he will be off the roster because his contract voids. However, on Hunter’s end, the Vikings will only pay him $5.5 million in cash in 2023. The rest of the salary cap dollars are going to prorated bonuses that have already been paid. Already having renegotiated once hoping to get more money, Hunter is unlikely to want to play while receiving just $5.5 million in new money in 2023. So what should the Vikings do with his contract?

For a player entering the last year of his deal, Hunter is very difficult to move on from. Because of all the pro-rated bonus money and the void years in his contract, cutting or trading him would cost the Vikings $5.74 million more in 2023 than keeping him on the roster. Even a post-June 1 move only saves about $5.5 million, while incurring significant future cap hits.

To me, a contract extension is the best move for the Vikings and Hunter. The Vikings lock up a high-performing player at a high value position in a time of transition and Hunter gets financial security. I’ll get into the details of a potential extension later, but first let’s look at why Hunter deserves it in the first place.

Bounce-BACK Season

Minnesota’s third-round pick in 2015, Hunter developed well and ascended to one of the top edge rushers in the NFL. He earned Pro Bowl nods in 2018 and 2019, recording 14.5 sacks in each season. Hunter’s combination of length and athleticism was a nightmare for opposing tackles to deal with off the edge, and his motor helped him maximize his production. Unfortunately, Hunter dealt with injuries throughout the next two seasons — a neck injury that sidelined him for all of 2020, and then he suffered a torn pec in Week 8 of the 2021 season. Hunter returned in 2022 and earned his third career Pro Bowl nod, recording 10.5 sacks on an ultimately poor Vikings defense.

However, Hunter was very productive in 2022. He ranked eighth in the NFL in total pressures per PFF, with 76. His 87.1 PFF grade also ranked eighth among edge rushers. Sports Info Solutions, another charting service, ranked him 17th among all players with 56 total pressures. Hunter also ranked T-11th in Brandon Thorn’s True Sack Rate metric, which analyzes the quality of each sack a player gets during the season. Hunter’s six “high quality” sacks were tied for 9th in the league. Hunter also played well in the run game, with 23 run stops per PFF, tied for seventh in the NFL among edge rushers.

Studying the tape shows a player who has maintained a high level of athleticism, a variety of moves to get to the QB, and a strong motor. Let’s look at some plays from 2022 to showcase his abilities:

The play above showcases’ Hunter’s athleticism and skill. He sidesteps a cut block, which is not easy to do and requires great athletic ability. He then reads the backfield and uses his length to disengage from Quenton Nelson before wrapping the running back for the tackle.

This play shows more athletic ability Hunter is the “read” player on a read option play. He starts down the line of scrimmage after the RB, and this causes Jalen Hurts to pull the ball. At this point, the Philadelphia Eagles are supposed to have taken Hunter out of the play. The decision the quarterback makes on read option is supposed to make the “read” player wrong. However, Hunter is able to use his incredible athleticism to accelerate and catch up to Hurts, forcing a cutback into the pursuit. It’s rare to find an edge rusher with this kind of ability.

Hunter’s athletic ability also benefits him in the passing game, where he consistently got great jumps off of the line of scrimmage. Look at the vertical ground he is able to cover in the below stills. Hunter (bottom of the line of scrimmage) explodes out of his stance gets half a yard upfield while other players are barely out of their stances:

Before Snap
Post Snap

The below is a different play but shows the benefits of a good getoff:

Hunter gets upfield quickly, and is able to turn at the level of the QB, getting past the right tackle with a rip move. His burst off the line made this play.

Hunter’s length is another asset to his game as it helps with leverage. In the play above, he is able to lock out the left tackle with one arm on his chest plate. The LT cannot reach Hunter to get a grip on him, as you can see his right hand unable to reach Hunter’s shoulder. Hunter used his superior leverage to squeeze the lane between him and Harrison Phillips on the defensive line, forcing the RB to cut outside. Because he was controlling the LT, he was able to disengage easily and make the tackle.

Hunter also shows impressive power. In the above you can see him walk the LT directly back into Matt Ryan for the sack.

Hunter combines his athleticism with quality technique. In the above, he has a very difficult task. A tight end chips him before going up against the RT. He addresses the TE chip, and then goes to attack the RT. He beats the RT quickly with a very effective hump move, and gets in QB Daniel Jones‘ face, forcing a bad throw.

The final play shows Hunter’s motor and hustle on the field. He is initially lined up at the top of the screen. After being chipped and seeing Jones scramble to his right, Hunter chases after him and is able to run him down to make the tackle.

FIT IN BRIAN FLORES’ DEFENSE

Much was made about Hunter’s fit in Ed Donatell’s defense, and the former Vikings DC mentioned multiple times that Hunter was still adjusting to the 3-4 scheme. As can be seen in the play above, I think Hunter played just fine for the Vikings last year, but Flores brings a defense that is also primarily a 3-4 to Minnesota.

In his opening press conference, Flores mentioned that he wants to “try to highlight the things that our players do well.” That’s a critical piece to Hunter’s success in the new defense. One of the issues for Hunter in the Donatell defense was rushing from a two-point stance, standing up, as opposed to a three-point stance where he has his hand on the ground. Ultimately, he used a mix of both last year, but Flores has a history of letting guys do what they’re more comfortable with.

Take a look at the example below:

At the top of the line, Shaq Lawson — who is a bigger body — has his hands in the dirt. At the bottom, Kyle Van Noy is in a two-point stance. That allows each player to do what they are comfortable with.

Another potential concern with Hunter’s fit in Flores’ defense is his body type. New England Patriots coaches stereotypically like a couple of different body types — either smaller players who can rush and cover the pass (Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins, Josh Uche) or bigger bodies who can come down and rush inside (Trey Flowers, Emmanuel Ogbah, Rob Ninkovich). While both of those types of players definitely fit in Flores’ defense, there is absolutely a role for a more traditional 4-3 edge rusher body like Hunter. There are two clear examples: Chandler Jones and Jaelan Phillips. Flores was a Patriots coach when they selected Jones in 2012, and he was the head coach when the Miami Dolphins drafted Jaelan Phillips in 2021.

Here are the athletic profiles for Hunter and Phillips:

Given the athletic similarities between Hunter and Phillips, a player Flores liked enough to green-light using a first round pick on, I have no doubt that Hunter will have a big role in Flores’ defense.

Contract extension

What does a potential extension for Hunter look like? The most recent big deal for an edge rusher was for Bradley Chubb, a 27-year-old who got a five-year, $110 million contract. It’s unlikely that Hunter reaches that AAV on a new deal. Shaq Barrett, who signed a four-year, $68 million contract in 2021 at age 29, the same age as Hunter is now. We can expect Hunter to get more than that $17 million per year average. Von Miller was a little bit older but a bigger name, and he signed a six-year, $120 million contract with the Buffalo Bills last offseason.

The Vikings could easily make $20 million per year for Hunter, but let’s slot him in slightly below Miller at $19 million per year on an extension. Cap flexibility is the reason for Minnesota to do this deal, so a short extension is tough given the cap charges that they already owe. A deal for two additional years is possible, but let’s add three years to the current deal with one void year. You could go to a four-year extension, but signing bonus proration only extends out for five years.

That means we are extending Hunter for three years with $57 million in new money. He would be under contract through 2026, and his contract would void before the 2027 season. Part of the motivation for Hunter is wanting money now, so let’s give him a $20 million signing bonus, and $30 million in total guarantees, guaranteeing his 2023 and 2024 salaries.

In the signing bonus, I’m including a conversion of his 2023 base salary and roster plus workout bonuses into a bonus, and giving him the minimum $1.1 million salary for 2023. With a $4 million signing bonus hit every year of the contract, this works out to a decrease in his 2023 cap hit to $12.7 million. His base salary in 2024 will be $9 million, which can be later converted into signing bonus to further reduce his cap hit. I gave him base salaries of $11.5 million in 2025 and $17.8 million in 2026 to make numbers round. Then 2026 would present a year where the Vikings could save money by cutting Hunter if his play drops off.

Here is what the structure looks like compared to his current deal:

Hunter’s contract may not be tradable or cuttable, but extending him makes sense for both sides.

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