After months of negotiations — which included Hunter skipping OTAs and mandatory minicamp, then sitting out the beginning of training camp while still present at the Vikings’ facility — the two sides agreed on Monday to a lucrative one-year contract that will pay the Pro-Bowl outside linebacker up to $20 million this year. But after the season is over, circumstances reset to square one.
For his part, Hunter spoke as though he is committed to committing the remainder of his career to Minnesota following the execution of his new agreement with the team.
“I want to be a Viking forever,” Hunter said during a post-practice interview on July 31. “I love this organization. I’ve always been an advocate for these dudes. I’m happy to be back, happy to get back out there with my teammates, and just want to get out there and play football.”
“It’s been a long process, but I’m here now,” Hunter continued, “and I’m ready to work.”
Danielle Hunter’s New Contract With Vikings Gives Him More Power Next Offseason
While nice to hear if you’re a Vikings fan, Hunter’s comments Monday were a couple octaves off the tune he’s been carrying throughout the entirety of the offseason.
The edge rusher took a cue from former teammate Za’Darius Smith and removed all Vikings imagery from his social media platforms, which has become the passive-aggressive messaging strategy of choice for professional athletes unhappy with their contracts and/or general situations.
ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler reported on July 29 that Minnesota offered Hunter a long-term deal earlier this summer, though he rejected it based on terms. Hunter’s new one-year contract guarantees he will dodge the Vikings’ franchise and transition tags next offseason, which means he is bound for unrestricted free agency, per Kevin Seifert of ESPN. It will be the first time in Hunter’s career that he will have absolute freedom to decide where, and for what amount, he plays.
As such, next offseason will be the true measure of how badly Hunter truly wants to be a Viking “forever,” as he put it Monday. It isn’t unreasonable to expect he might change his mind depending on what kind of offer the franchise lays at his doorstep, and it is unclear if there will be any residual hard feelings from the months-long contract dispute with the Vikings. Minnesota made Hunter available via trade just days before the two sides agreed to the one-year compromise.
Danielle Hunter, Vikings Likely to Repeat Offseason Drama in 2024
The contract Minnesota agreed upon with Hunter carries echos of how the franchise has navigated its situation with quarterback Kirk Cousins. It is an expensive, one-year holding pattern that could function as a prove-it deal that garners Hunter a multi-season contract in its wake. Or, it may simply bridge the gap to a better and/or less expensive solution off of the edge next offseason as the Vikings execute a plan they have labeled a “competitive rebuild.”
It wasn’t out of line for Hunter to demand a new contract this summer based on his recent performance. He earned Pro-Bowl honors for the third time in five seasons in 2022 and was set to make just $5.5 million in total cash on the final year of a five-year, $72 million deal that was front-loaded.
The annual average salary number of less than $15 million on that contract is now far below fair NFL market value for an elite-level pass rusher, and the $5.5 million in actual pay is laughable considering the 34 quarterback pressures, 22 QB hits and 10.5 sacks Hunter produced last season.
But while the Vikings did right by Hunter for the 2023 campaign in replacing the final year of his contract with $17 million in guaranteed money and the chance to earn up to $20 million, the franchise also may have put the OLB in a precarious position once he makes his first foray into free agency.
Hunter will turn 29 years old in October, which means he will essentially be in negotiations for his next (and probably last) long-term NFL contract entering his age 30 season. Fair or not, that is a benchmark year at which franchises generally begin to devalue players, as it is often regarded as the beginning of the downhill trajectory for most footballers’ careers.
Adding to that, Hunter has suffered some relatively recent injury concerns. He missed all of 2020 with a neck injury suffered during the preseason and sat out 10 of 17 regular season games in 2021 due to a pectoral tear. If Hunter suffers any serious injuries in 2023, or displays a significant regression in play, his value will be diminished in a very real way that goes well beyond the general perception of decline often attached to a highly-athletic player who is aging.
Minnesota spent the offseason saying all the right things when it came to Hunter and its desire to keep him. Now that Hunter is under contract, he’s saying all the right things publicly as well.
But in reality, Hunter’s deal was a case of the Vikings kicking the can down the road on a good but potentially overly expensive player, and that player taking the best deal he thought he could get absent the freedom to negotiate with competing franchises.
Even if everything goes to plan for both sides in 2023, the equation will still change drastically next offseason. That will be even more true if Hunter puts up a monster campaign, or suffers a major regression in play due to injury or some other factor.
As such, the Hunter saga is hardly over. Instead, it has merely been postponed until next March, when all parties will find themselves in familiar territory and the “forever” bond between team and player will be tested by the ever-present temptress of free agency.