Vikings Predicted to Part Ways With $17 Million Pro Bowl Superstar

Danielle Hunter, Vikings

Getty Outside linebacker Danielle Hunter of the Minnesota Vikings.

The Minnesota Vikings limped to the finish line of the regular season, losing six of their last seven contests, and more immediate pain appears to be in store for the franchise’s frustrated fan base.

Aaron Schatz of ESPN predicted on Sunday, January 7, that Minnesota will part ways with outside linebacker Danielle Hunter who proved himself among the fiercest and most disruptive pass-rushers in the NFL in 2023.

“The Vikings will allow edge rusher Danielle Hunter to leave in free agency despite the fact he set a career-high with 16.5 sacks,” Schatz wrote. “Hunter’s cost will be too expensive going into his age-30 season (likely over $20 million per year), and Vikings general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah will look to get younger on defense.”

Danielle Hunter Produced Career-Year in 2023, Which Was Both Good and Bad for Vikings

Danielle Hunter, Vikings

GettyOutside linebacker Danielle Hunter of the Minnesota Vikings sacks QB Justin Fields of the Chicago Bears during an NFL game in October 2023.

Losing Hunter is a tough pill to swallow considering the year he just produced.

Not only did the linebacker tally 16.5 sacks, he also led the league with 23 tackles for loss and accumulated 40 QB pressures and 22 QB hits, per Pro Football Reference. Hunter was a no-brainer Pro Bowl selection for the second straight season and for the fourth time in the last six years.

The only two times he failed to earn those honors over that span were in 2020, when he missed the entire season due to a fluky neck injury that required surgery, and in 2021, when he suffered a torn pectoral after tallying six sacks through seven games.

Hunter will turn 30 years old in the middle of next season, which will be his 10th in the NFL. Too much tread on the tires boding ill for a player seeking an expensive, multiyear deal is a fair argument for letting Hunter walk, and general managers like Adofo-Mensah who make analytics-based decisions will always try to build their rosters ahead of that curve. That said, there are exceptions to the rule.

Hunter has not been an unreliable player due to physical ailments over the course of his career. And other than taking a little longer to reach the QB on splash plays than some of his elite edge-rushing counterparts around the NFL, there isn’t much of a case to make that Hunter is slowing down.

Danielle Hunter Represents Common Missteps Vikings Made With Top Players in 2023

Danielle Hunter

GettyMinnesota Vikings outside linebacker Danielle Hunter.

Adofo-Mensah’s decision-making on Hunter over the past year has probably cost the Vikings.

The team had the opportunity to ink the pass-rusher to a multiyear contract over the summer, the first year of which would have counted toward 2023. That move would have taken a year off the end of any deal the team must make with him now if it hopes to keep Hunter around. And after a career season, his price has undoubtedly gone up. Spotrac currently projects Hunter’s market value at $20 million annually over a new three-year deal.

Instead, the Vikings renegotiated the final season of Hunter’s five-year, $72 million contract in 2023 and remade it into a one-year deal worth $17 million. That agreement also included $3 million in bonus incentives, all of which Hunter hit, bringing his pay up to $20 million for the campaign.

Adof0-Mensah’s choice not to extend Hunter before this season cost the franchise considerable leverage in any future negotiations it may have with the player, and could have priced Minnesota out of his services completely.

The front office’s stubbornness in choosing not to shop Hunter ahead of the league’s October 31 trade deadline, which fell two days after QB Kirk Cousins tore his Achilles tendon in a win over the Green Bay Packers that moved the Vikings to 4-4 on the season, erased any chance for the franchise to get a return on one of the more valuable assets any team can ever possess — an elite player at a premier position who is in the midst of a career campaign.

Vikings Made Same Mistakes With Kirk Cousins That They Made With Danielle Hunter

Kirk Cousins, Minnesota Vikings

GettyQuarterback Kirk Cousins of the Minnesota Vikings.

The exact same criticisms levied at Adofo-Mensah for how he handled Hunter last summer and ahead of the trade deadline can also apply to how the team managed Cousins during the final year of his contract. The QB wanted to sign a multiyear extension with Minnesota ahead of the season and was willing to take a “discount” to do so, but the Vikings declined.

Normally, a serious injury to a 35-year-old player who has averaged almost $31 million annually over six seasons affords the franchise leverage in the next round of free-agent negotiations. However, the Vikings (7-10) played too well to earn a top-10 pick and will select at No. 11 in the upcoming draft. Save for an expensive trade, that puts Minnesota outside the range of the top three or four QBs in what analysts project will be an elite draft for the position.

However, the Vikings weren’t good enough to make the playoffs because they didn’t have a serviceable backup for Cousins, despite trading for one in Josh Dobbs and trying two others in career backup Nick Mullens and fifth-round rookie Jaren Hall.

None of those three players are a short-term answer under center for the Vikings, let alone a long-term solution, which renders Cousins more leverage now than he had six months ago — even as he rehabilitates from an Achilles injury.

Vikings’ Decisions Likely to Result in Pricier Deal for Kirk Cousins, Departure of Danielle Hunter

Kwesi Adofo-Mensah, Vikings

GettyGeneral Manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah of the Minnesota Vikings.

Hindsight is, of course, 20-20 and if Cousins never gets hurt the Vikings probably make a playoff run and perhaps even contend with the Detroit Lions for a second consecutive NFC North Division title. And Adofo-Mensah’s methods can’t be discarded as inherently flawed simply because they backfired in two high-profile cases this season.

If Cousins or Hunter regressed significantly in 2023, and it was reasonable to believe that one or both might, the Vikings GM looks like a genius. But they didn’t. In fact, each man looked better than he had the year before when both made the Pro Bowl.

Unfortunately for Minnesota fans, the most likely way all these developments manifest is that the Vikings bring back Cousins on a more expensive, less team-friendly deal than they could have got last summer, and that Hunter winds up wearing another team’s colors come the start of the 2024 season.

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