Danielle Hunter Is a Litmus Test for Vikings

Aug 27, 2021; Kansas City, Missouri, USA; Minnesota Vikings defensive end Danielle Hunter. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Keep an eye on Danielle Hunter’s status this summer because he’ll act as a fulcrum for the Minnesota Vikings 2023 outlook.

Danielle Hunter Is a Litmus Test for Vikings

Hunter held out of minicamp last week, seeking a fresh contract extension — probably in the neighborhood of $20-$25 million annually. If the Vikings don’t fancy paying the 28-year-old that sum, he could be traded to the highest bidder.

And while the Vikings wouldn’t necessarily ‘roll over and die’ in 2023 after a hypothetical Hunter trade, his existence or lack thereof on the roster will teach you a lot about this year’s team. Here’s why.

‘In It to Win It’ with Hunter

The 2022 Vikings won the NFC North for the first time in five years on the back of a 13-4 record with a first-year head coach. Of course, many national NFL pundits — and even some Vikings fans — tried to tear down the record after the fact, calling it lucky, fraudulent, or any other spicy adjective of the day.

Hunter Is a Litmus
Sep 25, 2022; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings linebacker Danielle Hunter (99) looks on before the game against the Detroit Lions at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports.

If a head coach wins 13 games during his maiden voyage, he will unlikely say, “Dah, well. That was lucky. Let’s start over because some websites want me to.” He should be plotting ways to improve or maintain his first-year performance.

And although Minnesota cut ties with Adam Thielen, Eric Kendricks, Dalvin Cook, and others, the club outwardly professes ‘all-in’ stakes yet again — for about the eighth season in a row. Ask Justin Jefferson or Marcus Davenport.

Trading Hunter, though, wouldn’t align with attempting to win a Super Bowl. Should Hunter join another team via trade, Minnesota may very well have 2024 and beyond as the goal in mind.

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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 Vikings can’t expect to keep up a division-winning personality by trading Hunter and Za’Darius Smith away from the league’s 30th-ranked defense (points allowed) in 2022. A team doesn’t improve a stinky defense by eliminating the two best pass rushers. The world doesn’t work that way.

Certainly, Minnesota won’t ‘tank’ if Hunter is traded, but it will signal a limited 2023 ceiling.

Emphasis on ‘Rebuild’ Part of Competitive Rebuild if Traded

If the Hunter trade materializes, however, all bets are off. The club will promote Patrick Jones or D.J. Wonnum, sign a free agent like Robert Quinn, or use an EDGE rusher obtained from the trade.

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Nov 13, 2022; Orchard Park, New York, USA; Minnesota Vikings linebacker Danielle Hunter (99) warms up before a game against the Buffalo Bills at Highmark Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports.

Unless that player is Chase Young and the trade is with the Washington Commanders, no Hunter replacement will play as well as him. The odds of parlaying Diggs-into-Jefferson this year via a Hunter trade are next to nil.

Then, Vikings fans would understand the full heft of general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah’s competitive rebuild plan. Again, 2023 doesn’t have to swirl down the toilet, but Hunter is very much a piece of a Super Bowl-contending team. Signing ‘some guy’ from free agency to play Hunter’s spot is something a meh team would implement.

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Minnesota Vikings linebacker Danielle Hunter (99) pressures Miami Dolphins quarterback Teddy Bridgewater (5) during the third quarter of an NFL game at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Oct. 16, 2022. © JIM RASSOL/THE PALM BEACH POST / USA TODAY NETWORK.

Adofo-Mensah has preached ‘navigating both worlds’ vis-à-vis contending and rebuilding, part of his modus operandi as a young executive. He doesn’t believe in scorching a roster to the ground, nor has he shown an unrelenting affinity toward trading picks for players like the 2021 Los Angeles Rams. Adofo-Mensah lives in the middle of both worlds.

That mentality is fine and dandy — and implemented by most storied franchises like the Steelers, Chiefs, and Packers — but offloading Hunter for draft picks and future salary cap flexibility would strongly hint at an embrace of rebuild in the competitive rebuild slogan.

Dustin Baker is a political scientist who graduated from the University of Minnesota in 2007. Subscribe to his daily YouTube Channel, VikesNow. He hosts a podcast with Bryant McKinnie, which airs every Wednesday with Raun Sawh and Sal Spice. His Vikings obsession dates back to 1996. Listed guilty pleasures: Peanut Butter Ice Cream, ‘The Sopranos,’ Basset Hounds, and The Doors (the band).

All statistics provided by Pro Football Reference / Stathead; all contractual information provided by OverTheCap.com.