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Danielle Hunter Update

Wild Card Round - Minnesota Vikings v New Orleans Saints Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

It’s been a year since we’ve seen Danielle Hunter practice or play in any meaningful way, and to recap, here are the issues:

  • Hunter is reportedly unhappy with his current contract, as what was once a solid market value for his services, has become a fairly significantly undervalued contract relative to Hunter’s production. His contract was a 5-year, $72MM deal, averaging $14.4MM a year back in 2018. Since then, top edge rushers have commanded deals averaging north of $20MM/year, and now Hunter’s contract average annual value (AAV) is 13th highest in the NFL at his position (DE) and 20th if you include OLB edge rushers. He’s got three years left on his current contract, and in 2019 recorded the 2nd most pressures of any edge rusher in the NFL.
  • Hunter also suffered a cervical spine disc herniation in his neck, which required surgery last year, and resulted in missing the entire season on IR. That type of neck injury is what sidelined Mike Hughes, and after surgery began to flare up again, causing him to miss more time. When the Vikings released Hughes, there were reports that Hughes simply wasn’t the same player after suffering the neck injuries. That injury is also what sidelined Peyton Manning years ago, ultimately requiring four surgeries, including an eventual cervical fusion of the vertebrate. Manning played a few more years in Denver, but missed time his last year. Kam Chancellor also suffered a similar injury, and retired a year later at age 30, as later tests showed no healing, and he risked paralysis if he continued to play. I haven’t seen any reports suggesting Hunter’s neck hasn’t healed after surgery, and his continuing to work-out and prepare for the coming season suggests the surgery went well and his neck has healed. But there is also no telling if the injury could flare up again, as it did with Mike Hughes.

Those two issues create something of a conflict for the Vikings, who want to retain their superstar edge rusher, and are expecting him to play this season. So far, Hunter has been one of the few absent from OTAs, and local beat reporter Darren Wolfson reported yesterday that a source told him he didn’t expect Hunter to show up for mandatory minicamp next week either. Wolfson added that things could change, a deal could get done, and Hunter could end up reporting for minicamp next week, but at the moment that isn’t his plan.

The issue for the Vikings is that they might find a way to pay Hunter more, to keep him happy, but his neck injury may be an obstacle. How much more do you pay your top edge rusher if he could re-aggravate his neck injury at any time?

From Hunter’s perspective, if he’s gonna risk his neck to play for the Vikings, he wants to be paid his market value for doing so - who knows how long he can stay healthy, and he wants to get paid his market value while he is.

The other issue is just what is that market value? Edge rusher AAV went up dramatically the last couple years, culminating in Joey Bosa’s $27MM AAV deal, making him the highest paid edge rusher from an AAV perspective. But since then, the salary cap has come down, and more recent deals suggest the market is coming back down again. For Hunter, that market value may be around $20MM AAV.

The Vikings could restructure Hunter’s contract, topping it up to $20MM or so for his remaining three years, but what if the neck injury comes up again? Providing more guaranteed money to Hunter means they’d be out that much more should his neck injury flare up again - as it did with Mike Hughes. At the moment, they haven’t even been able to see how he does in practice or pre-season, let alone in regular season games. It may be that they want to see how he holds up for a while before offering him more money. At the same time, Hunter is looking for added security and compensation before risking injury. So far, by not attending OTAs, Hunter has forfeited his $100,000 workout bonus this year, and staying away from mini-camp could result in additional fines, if the Vikings choose to enforce them.

And so this is a tricky issue for both Hunter and the Vikings. The Vikings may be willing to pay Hunter more at some point, but at the same time need to be careful in the risk they take with precious salary cap dollars. From Hunter’s side, he needs to be careful in terms of risking injury before he gets paid, but may also be faced with the need to show his neck is okay before that can happen in the way he would like.

However, there is also contract precedent as an issue for the Vikings. Normally teams don’t renegotiate contracts until the last year of the deal. The Vikings did make an exception and restructured Adam Thielen’s contract with two years remaining, as he was way underpaid compared to his market value at the time. But the Vikings most likely don’t want to set a new precedent of renegotiating a contract with three years remaining, which opens them up to doing so with other players in the future who may feel underpaid. One option that could work for both sides is if the Vikings converted some of Hunter’s 2022 salary into a signing bonus, thereby paying him more now, essentially taking some of his future salary and paying it to him now. The Vikings have some salary cap available at the moment to do that. The Steelers did that salary cap maneuver with Antonio Brown at one stage.

On the other hand, Hunter doesn’t have a lot of leverage right now. He just missed an entire season for which he was paid, which takes some of his pay vs. production argument away from him. Taking his hold out further, by skipping minicamp, could cost him another $93,000, and every day of training camp he misses, if he continues his hold out, would cost him $50,000 per day, and those fines are league mandated and cannot be reduced. Additionally, if he holds out longer than six days in training camp, the Vikings could also go after a small part of his $15 million signing bonus.

Hopefully both sides can recognize the entirety of the situation, and come to some agreement that allows Hunter to return for mandatory mini-camp next week. More importantly, hopefully Hunter’s injury doesn’t continue to flare up, as it has with other players, and cause him to miss additional time in the future.

6/10/21 Update: Vikings’ DL coach & DC Andre Patterson was asked if he’d spoken with Hunter and whether he’ll be at mandatory minicamp next week during this morning’s press conference. He said he had spoken with Hunter, but he’s keeping that conversation private, and didn’t say if he’ll be attending minicamp next week.

6/14/21 Update: Hunter confirms he will attend minicamp tomorrow.

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