The Vikings May Regret a Certain Free Agency Outcome

Sep 24, 2023; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings linebacker Danielle Hunter (99) tackles Los Angeles Chargers running back Joshua Kelley (25) in the fourth quarter at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Very likely, the Vikings made the smart move by not matching Atlanta’s huge offer to Kirk Cousins. Navigating life without the long-time QB1 won’t be easy, but Kwesi Adofo-Mensah seems right to have avoided pushing the compensation too high for an older QB coming off of a major injury.

Can we say the same about the Danielle Hunter decision? The Vikings may regret how this one played out.

NFL: Minnesota Vikings at Washington Commanders
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

The star edge rusher has been in Minnesota since being drafted 88th overall in 2015. Jump back into that draft and re-choose. Any chance the long-and-strong defender gets out of the top 10? Top 5? None of the opening picks — Jameis Winston, Marcus Mariota, Dante Fowler, Amari Cooper, and Brandon Scherff — seem likely to go ahead of Hunter in a re-draft (though, in fairness, Scherff has had an excellent career).

Injuries aside, Hunter has been a dominant defender at a premium position. Even in his ninth season, Hunter was able to stack up 83 tackles, 16.5 sacks, and 23 TFLs (all career-high numbers). Dominant numbers for a dominant defender. Is he replaceable?

The Vikings May Regret Not Finding a Way to Retain Danielle Hunter

Hunter is from Houston, so the hometown appeal was a factor.

The veteran also gets the benefit of working under DeMeco Ryans, an excellent head coach. On the other side of the line will be Will Anderson, a tremendously promising pass rusher who is coming off of a Defensive Rookie of the Year Award. Oh, and then there’s C.J. Stroud on the other side of the ball, who also turned in a dominant rookie season. The quarterback snagged the Offensive Rookie of the Year Award.

Aug 19, 2023; Houston, Texas, USA; Houston Texans quarterback C.J. Stroud (7) warms up before playing against the Miami Dolphins at NRG Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Thomas Shea-USA TODAY Sports

Danielle Hunter is thus being grafted into a promising roster that did excellently in 2023. Ryans led his team to a 10-7 record and then a playoff victory. Upward and onward for the Texans.

The Hunter contract is being listed as a 2-year agreement worth a total of $49 million. Crucially, a whopping $48 million is guaranteed. Take a look at the per-year cap hit breakdown:

  • 2024: $13,700,000
  • 2025: $23,700,000
  • 2026: $12,600,000 (Void Dead Money)
NFL: Minnesota Vikings at Atlanta Falcons
Nov 5, 2023; Atlanta, Georgia, USA; Atlanta Falcons running back Tyler Allgeier (25) is tackled by Minnesota Vikings defensive tackle Harrison Phillips (97) and linebacker Danielle Hunter (99) during the second half at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

In theory, the Vikings could have afforded similar numbers. After all, Hunter’s dead money charge in 2024 is sitting at a rotund $14.9 million, meaning his cap charge is costing more in Minnesota than in Houston. And, of course, there’s the future abundance that 2025 is offering. Keeping Hunter would have chewed into that abundance by quite a bit, but what’s the point of having cap space if it’s not being used on tremendous talents?

And, notably, Hunter clarified in his opening press conference as a Texans player that he was expecting the Vikings to bring him back: “I mean I always felt like they were going to bring me back, but business is business.” Shortly thereafter, Hunter expresses how thankful he is to the Vikings for originally bringing him into the NFL.

NFL: Detroit Lions at Minnesota Vikings
Oct 10, 2021; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings defensive end D.J. Wonnum (98) and defensive end Danielle Hunter (99) and defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson (90) 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

Hunter doesn’t have any animosity toward the Vikings’ organization. Quite the opposite is true. He is thankful for what they did for him and was actually expecting Minnesota to welcome him back into the fold.

In other words, the elite defender was more than open to returning. Ian Rapoport suggested that the pass rusher had a higher offer out there but it likely wasn’t coming from the Vikings given what Hunter says in his presser.

The most reasonable theory is one that I’ve heard from Josh Frey, the managing editor of PurplePTSD. Minnesota was actually interested in bringing him back but Hunter wanted to venture into free agency in search of something a touch higher than what was on the table in The Gopher State. By the time Hunter could circle back around, the Vikings had already burned through their edge rusher budget with the additions of Jonathan Greenard and Andrew Van Ginkel.

Oct 29, 2023; Miami Gardens, Florida, USA; Miami Dolphins linebacker Andrew Van Ginkel (43) takes on the field prior to the game against the New England Patriots at Hard Rock Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports

Maybe that’s what happened. Adding in the fact that Greenard — the main replacement — is 2.5 years younger and then cheaper (on a per year average, at least) makes the idea even more palatable.

One thing is certain, though: Hunter is a homegrown talent who offers elite play from one of the game’s most important positions. Generally speaking, teams try to hold on with both hands when that kind of player is in the building. Adding in that he was a team captain and is someone who cares about his community further solidify the notion that Hunter is someone to keep.

Moving into a future where the QB position is unsettled becomes a lot easier to navigate if the defense can operate at an elite level. Subtracting Danielle Hunter thus looks like the kind of move that the Vikings may go on to regret.

Editor’s Note: Information from Pro Football Reference 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.