Pass Rusher D.J. Wonnum — A Pending Free Agent — Keeps Making Plays. Can the Vikings Still Afford Him?

NFL: Minnesota Vikings at Denver Broncos
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Very quietly, D.J. Wonnum has been developing into a rock-solid EDGE2 for Minnesota.

Coming into the season, the plan was for Marcus Davenport to take on that job, replacing the traded Za’Darius Smith. Injuries, though, have undermined those best laid plans, meaning someone else has had to fill that void. Enter Wonnum. The fourth-year player is on the final year of his rookie contract, so few would be surprised if he has just a tiny bit more motivation.

Nov 12, 2023; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings linebacker D.J. Wonnum (98) celebrates his sack against the New Orleans Saints quarterback Derek Carr (4) in the second quarter at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

The 6’5″, 258-pound pass rusher now finds himself at 6 sacks for the season, a total that comfortably positions him behind Danielle Hunter’s 12 sacks for second place on Minnesota’s roster. He’s a pair of sacks from tying his career high and a pair of TFLs away from surpassing his career high. All of this within a season where the plan was for him to be the #3 option.

At 26 — his birthday arrived on Halloween — Wonnum is at an age that aligns perfectly with Kwesi Adofo-Mensah’s competitive rebuild. He’s young enough to play at a high level for several more years; he’s good enough to help a team in the immediate. What remains to be seen is how much he’ll demand since he’s among the Vikings’ many pending free agents.

D.J. Wonnum Deserves to Get Paid; How Much is Too Much?

Bringing Russell Wilson to the turf isn’t easy.

True, the former Seahawk isn’t as elusive as he used to be, but he’s still capable of creating some chaos with his legs. Generating pressure and actually getting a sack are very, very different things when Wilson is the one who is under center.

NFL: Minnesota Vikings at Washington Commanders
Nov 6, 2022; Landover, Maryland, USA; Minnesota Vikings linebacker Danielle Hunter (99) and Vikings linebacker D.J. Wonnum (98) celebrate after a sack against the Washington Commanders during the third quarter at FedExField. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

On a 3rd & 5 to begin the 4th quarter, Wonnum got home for the sack. In effect, the Broncos had their drive fall short, resulting in a field goal. For a little while at least, Wonnum helped to stop the bleeding for Minnesota, forcing the Broncos to settle for 3 points instead of the dreaded 7.

The initial months of the offseason should be eventful in Minnesota. Better yet, they could be borderline chaotic.

The Vikings are sitting on nine draft picks and a touch below $52 million in cap space. Extending Justin Jefferson will be a top priority. Decisions will need to be made regarding Kirk Cousins, Danielle Hunter, Harrison Smith, Jordan Hicks, Marcus Davenport, Harrison Phillips, K.J. Osborn, and several other players who are either free agents or scheduled to come back with large cap hits.

NFL: Minnesota Vikings at Carolina Panthers
Oct 1, 2023; Charlotte, North Carolina, USA; Minnesota Vikings safety Harrison Smith (22) celebrates with linebacker Jordan Hicks (58) after a sack in the fourth quarter at Bank of America Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Somewhere within the cluster of craziness is D.J. Wonnum. Sensibly enough, the 2020 4th-round selection is going to make an effort to secure a large payday. His four years in the NFL have come under a 4-year, $4,045,780 deal. Though, notably, his 2023 cap charge got a boost with the proven performance escalator, meaning his compensation for the current season sits a hair below $3 million.

Few could blame him if he leaps at the highest bidder. Can that be the Vikings?

Minnesota has the benefit of not only beginning with a decent chunk of change but, critically, a chunk of change that has great potential to grow (and by a substantial amount). Just the (potential) Jefferson extension opens the possibility of liberating nearly $15 million in extra room.

Of course, cap space can quickly dissipate. Any GM who is looking to burn through a budget will find a long list of players who are more than willing to help him do so. The Vikings will have plenty of options and flexibility but the resources are still finite. Kwesi — the stock trader and investing whiz — understands this reality better than anyone in Minnesota.

NCAA Football: Michigan at Minnesota
Oct 7, 2023; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah looks on from the sidelines before the game between the Minnesota Golden Gophers and the Michigan Wolverines at Huntington Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

The question, then, rests in whether the Vikings can afford D.J. Wonnum. Or, perhaps, should we flip the question around? If Wonnum continues playing at a high level, can the Vikings afford not to keep him? Pass rushers capable of pushing for 10 sacks don’t grow on trees.

With 6 sacks, Wonnum is tied for 21st in the NFL (Hunter has, at least temporarily, relinquished his hold of the top spot, with Myles Garrett sitting at #1 due to his 13 sacks). What will Wonnum demand on the open market?

One wonders about someone like Carl Granderson in New Orleans as an interesting comparable. He, too, made some pretty modest money initially, but he signed a 4-year, $52 million extension during the offseason. The deal comes in at a $13 million annual average and $22.13 million in guarantees.

He has never gone above 5.5 sacks in a season (but he seems likely to surpass that total since he’s already at that number in 2023). Granderson has a near identical build and age, so the contract is one that’s notable, especially given the similarities in their sack totals.

Vikings Defense
Oct 10, 2021; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings defensive end D.J. Wonnum (98) and defensive end Danielle Hunter (99) celebrates a sack of Detroit Lions quarterback Jared Goff (not pictured) during the fourth quarter at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Would the Vikings commit somewhere around $13 million per season to Wonnum? What kind of sacrifices would need to be made to accommodate that kind of cap charge?

The Granderson deal suggests that something within the range of $12-$14 million wouldn’t be particularly surprising for D.J. Wonnum. Again, we’re talking about a 26-year-old pass rusher with great length who has proven that he has a knack for finishing his sacks. Someone is going to pay this man; it remains to be seen whether that deal will arrive in Minnesota.

In the past, Wonnum has terrorized the Chicago Bears. The Vikings’ next game comes at home against Justin Fields’ Bears, so let’s see if the young pass rusher can add some more sacks onto his season total. Each major play will make him more and more expensive.

Editor’s Note: Information from Pro Football Reference, Spotrac, and Over the Cap helped with this piece.

K. Joudry is the Senior Editor for Vikings Territory and PurplePTSD. He has been covering the Vikings full time since the summer of 2021. He can be found on Twitter and as a co-host for Notes from the North, a humble Vikings podcast.