$72 Million Vikings Defender Named Top 2024 Free Agent, Trade Chip

Adofo-Mensah, O'Connell, Vikings

Getty General manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah (left) and head coach Kevin O'Connell (right) of the Minnesota Vikings.

The Minnesota Vikings have bid farewell to several tentpole players this offseason and things may not get any easier a year from now.

Danielle Hunter was the most prolific pass rusher on the Vikings roster in 2022, racking up 10.5 sacks and earning his third Pro-Bowl nod in the past five seasons. Minnesota general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah had the opportunity to extend Hunter this offseason and significantly reduce his $13.1 million salary cap hit in 2023. That would have been the logical move if the team was dead set on the 28-year-old as part of its long-term future. However, the Vikings chose not to extend Hunter, indicating that this season could be his last in Minnesota ahead of unrestricted free agency.

David DeChant of The Athletic on Thursday, April 6, listed Hunter as the NFL’s No. 16 free agent prospect in 2024, noting further that a trade could be on the horizon should Hunter replicate last season’s success again this year.

Hunter is an outlier on this list, having entered the league before Nos. 1-15. But the 2015 third-round pick doesn’t turn 29 until October and put two injury-plagued years behind him with an outstanding 2022 season: 10 1/2 sacks, career-high-tying 22 QB hits and a 13 percent pressure rate on a career-high 906 snaps.

Another season like that and his third contract could comfortably eclipse his second — a major bargain at five years, $72 million — though some teams might be leery of paying big money to a nine-year veteran who had neck surgery in 2020. A trade should not be ruled out after two years of swirling rumors.

Hunter Top NFL Pass Rusher When Healthy Over Last 5 Years

Danielle Hunter, Vikings

GettyEdge defender Danielle Hunter of the Minnesota Vikings warms up before a game against the Seattle Seahawks at U.S. Bank Stadium on September 26, 2021 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by David Berding/Getty Images)

When healthy Hunter has been one of the best pass rushers in the NFL, meaning if the Vikings can’t come to terms on an extension with him the trade market for his services should be real.

Beyond his three Pro-Bowl selections, Hunter has earned second-team All-Pro honors once (2018), came in fifth place for AP Defensive Player of the Year (2019) and finished 12th in voting for AP Comeback Player of the Year (2022). Hunter has amassed 112 quarterback hits and 71 sacks over the course of his career, per Pro Football Reference, and recorded a double-digit sack total in four separate seasons.

Hunter suffered a neck injury in August of 2020 that ultimately required surgery and cost him the entirety of that campaign. He logged six sacks in just seven games in 2021 before a torn pectoral muscle sidelined him for the rest of the year.

Vikings Pass Rusher Za’Darius Smith on Trade Block in 2023

Za' Darius Smith

GettyEdge defenders Za’Darius Smith (left) and Danielle Hunter (right) of the Minnesota Vikings participate in drills during training camp at TCO Performance Center on August 11, 2022 in Eagan, Minnesota. (Photo by David Berding/Getty Images)

Losing Hunter sometime in the next 12 months will be a tough blow to Vikings fans should it happen, but it will hurt even worse if the team deals his pass-rushing counterpart Za’Darius Smith this offseason.

Smith asked the Vikings for his release in March, which Minnesota declined. A trade has since become a likely outcome, even despite Smith’s $9.45 million base salary flipping to guaranteed status after Minnesota failed to release or trade him ahead of March 20. The floor of Smith’s trade value shouldn’t be lower than a fourth-round draft pick, even though he missed most of 2021 with a back injury and will play next season at 31 years old.

The Vikings can save $12.2 million in salary cap space by trading Smith prior to June 1 and $13.8 million by trading him after that date, per Over The Cap. There are also savings to be had if Minnesota cuts Smith before the start of next season. If the Vikings cut him prior to June 1, they will save $7.1 million. If they wait until after June 1, those savings jump to roughly $8.8 million in 2023.

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