Evaluating a Potential Danielle Hunter Extension

Nov 24, 2022; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings linebacker Danielle Hunter (99) celebrates the win after the game against the New England Patriots at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

For the 4th offseason in a row, we heard that pass rusher Danielle Hunter is unhappy with his contract. To be fair, he has been underpaid for 4 years. Before going to the debate of whether or not to offer Hunter a contract extension, let’s look at his career and previous contract for some much-needed context.

Hunter was a 3rd round selection in the 2015 Draft and was viewed as a big project. Looking at some scouting reports from 2015, almost everyone said that he was a crazy-gifted athlete with insane tools, but his tape and production weren’t consistent with that. Rick Spielman and Mike Zimmer took a chance at the former LSU player thinking they could develop him, and boy, they were right.

His rookie season was somewhat quiet but still promising, recording 6.0 sacks in 14 games (one start). He improved drastically going to Year 2, upping his sack number to 12.5. This earned him the starting job in 2017, but, even though he was a starter, his production fell, as he recorded only 7.0 sacks and had 8 fewer QB hits.

Even after a down year, the Vikings’ front office, then led by Rick Spielman, gave Danielle Hunter a new contract before the 2018 training camp. Although he wasn’t the highest-paid defensive end in the league, his $72 million contract put him in the top 10, with an average annual salary on par with what fellow edge rusher Everson Griffen received.

Danielle Hunter Extension
Nov 6, 2022; Landover, Maryland, USA; Minnesota Vikings linebacker Danielle Hunter (99) sacks Washington Commanders quarterback Taylor Heinicke (4) during the second half at FedExField. Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

After signing his contract, Hunter really started to shine. He recorded back-to-back 14.5 sack seasons, earning two Pro Bowls and breaking the record for the youngest player to reach 50.0 sacks (25 years and 40 days) and most sacks by age 25 (48.0). With two stellar campaigns and already in the discussion for best edge in the league, Hunter would want more money – which is totally fair -, and that’s when the problems started.

Danielle Hunter was absent for the opening days of the 2020 training camp, with what Mike Zimmer first described at the time as a “tweak” but later we found out he had a herniated neck disc, forcing him to miss the entire 2020 season.

When 2021 came, he started to ask for a new contract, given that he was only the 17th highest paid at that time. After skipping the voluntary workouts, the team gave him more money for the 2021 season and added an $18 million roster bonus due in 2022. What this meant is that he’d either get a new big contract before this bonus was due or he’d get traded. And actually neither happened.

Hunter started the 2021 campaign looking as great as ever, but he suffered a torn pec seven games into the season, abruptly ending yet another year. After a subpar year, both Rick Spielman and Mike Zimmer got fired, being replaced by Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and Kevin O’Connell, respectfully.

With an $18 million roster bonus and $25 million cap hit, the rumors started flying around that the pass rusher was available for trade. But just as fast as those rumors came, the ones saying that the team was looking for a long-term deal with Danielle Hunter appeared.

Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (12) is sacked by Minnesota Vikings linebacker Danielle Hunter (99) in the fourth quarter during their football game Sunday, September 11, 2022, at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Min. Dan Powers/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin Apc Packvsvikings 0911221253djp

Although the sides didn’t reach an agreement, Adofo-Mensah decided to absorb that huge roster bonus but transformed it into a signing bonus and added two void years to his contract, lowering Hunter’s cap number by a lot. Now, he again is looking for a new contract, and this time it looks like he’ll either get one or be somewhere else in 2024, as this is the last year of the contract.

And now we get to the real topic of this article: if the Vikings should give Danielle Hunter a new contract and for how much money. I’ll try to look at both sides of the argument and then give my opinion on it.

Arguing for the Danielle Hunter Extension

The biggest argument for keeping him is that, when healthy, he’s one of the best in the league. Even when coming back from two huge injuries and playing in a scheme that for some reason put him in coverage sometimes, he recorded 10.5 sacks, 22 QB hits, and 34 pressures in 2022.

His production is still great and the team is nowhere near to finding him a replacement. And I’m not even talking about his leadership because it’s very hard to know this kind of thing without being with the team, but also very hard to see someone talking bad things about Hunter’s character.

He’s the best player in that front seven and one of the best on the whole team, will be only 29 this year, and still has a lot of great football ahead of him.

Questions Answered: Danielle Hunter Sights on NFL Record, Zimmer's Son, Rashod Hill Replacement
Jul 28, 2022; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Vikings linebacker Danielle Hunter. Mandatory Credit: Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports.

Arguing Against the Extension

When talking about why the team should let him go after this next season, the talking point surrounds his injury history, mainly his neck. Herniated discs are major problems, and there’s always a chance of it happening again.

Another point against Hunter is that when you’re in the news every offseason for wanting more money (although, again, he is certainly underpaid), it may give the impression that he doesn’t want to be with the team.

Opinion

Those two injuries are indeed scary, when having this discussion in Brazil last year I changed my mind a number of times. If a long-term deal is not on the table, I’d rather see him traded than see him go in free agency next year to maybe get a 3rd-or-4th rounder compensatory pick in 2025.

With that being said, I feel like the best option is to keep him on the team in a new contract. As I said, he’s still very good, the team is nowhere near replacing him, and he’ll only be 29. The difficult part would be to see what the terms of the contract are, so let’s take a look at that.

The Contract

I find it very hard to believe that Danielle Hunter would reset for a couple of reasons. First, he’ll be 29 years old in October, so although he’s not too old, he’s also not a young buck anymore.

There’s the injury problem as well. Adofo-Mensah probably won’t like to commit almost $30 million per year to a 30 years old player with an injury history. The other factor here is that even though Hunter can produce and put numbers on the stat sheet, he’s not putting TJ Watt, Joey Bosa, or Myles Garrett-like numbers.

Looking at where the edge market is, his age, production, and overall ability, here is a contract that I believe is fair to both sides. Danielle Hunter probably wants his contract to figure in the top 10, so let’s give him that. A $74 million, 4-year contract will keep him at 10th in overall value, but that’s not what we should look for when analyzing a contract. The new $18.5 million per year average would take him from 21st to 9th highest, surpassing Harold Landry and Cam Jordan.

We’ll put the guaranteed portion of the contract at $29.6 million, guaranteeing him 40% of his deal. Giving him almost 30 million dollars should make Hunter happy while still allowing the team to have flexibility if he’s hurt again or starts to decline in the next two years. The signing bonus is where the team would spend the most, giving him a $20 million bonus, tying for the 6th-most – without counting rookie contracts.

It’s very possible that the two sides don’t reach an agreement for a multitude of reasons, but I firmly believe that it makes sense to keep Danielle Hunter on the team. A contract like this isn’t crazy for a player of his caliber and age, but concerns about his health are a factor that both sides must consider when negotiating.