Why Danielle Hunter’s Return Is So Important

Danielle Hunter Saga
Nov 25, 2018; Minneapolis, MN, USA;Minnesota Vikings defensive lineman Danielle Hunter. Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports.

Minnesota Vikings outside linebacker Danielle Hunter maintained his stay in Minneapolis over the weekend, agreeing to a one-year, $17 million deal.

Hunter’s earnings can expand to $20 million with sack incentives.

Why Danielle Hunter’s Return Is So Important

And most of the Vikings fanbase offered a sigh of relief regarding the deal, as Hunter was the source of trade rumors for about seven weeks preceding the extension.

So, Hunter is back — at least for one more year, and here’s why that’s so damn vital.

1. Proof There’s ‘Competitive’ in ‘Competitive Rebuild’

Vikings general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah said in March of 2022 about his definition of rebuilding a roster, “I think when people look at teams, they sometimes do it in a very binary way. And they ask, ‘Are you either all-in or tearing down and rebuilding?’ And I don’t really look at the world that way. The way we look at it is we’re trying to navigate both worlds.”

Overhauled Teams
Jan 15, 2023; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah looks on before a wild card game between the Minnesota Vikings and the New York Giants at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports.

Those words are very clear to understand, but some Vikings fans and pundits still try to plop the franchise in a they should tank camp or ask themselves, “Is this team really all-in?”

Well, extending Hunter in 2023 promises the fanbase a commitment to contend for the postseason and beyond. Indeed, veterans like Adam Thielen, Dalvin Cook, and Eric Kendricks, among others, were jettisoned this offseason, but they bolted because Adofo-Mensah didn’t believe those players would get better at this stage of their careers.

Return Is So
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.

Hunter, on the other hand, likely has a few prime seasons left; EDGE rushers can perform mightily into their early-30s.

Had the Vikings traded Hunter to the highest bidder, the rebuild part of ‘competitive rebuild’ would’ve reigned supreme, and Minnesota likely would’ve targeted a respectable — but not Super Bowl-contending — season. Hunter is among the NFL’s top pass rushers, and his return affirms Minnesota’s ‘in it to win it’ mentality during Kevin O’Connell’s second season.

2. Life without Za’Darius

Adofo-Mensah traded Za’Darius Smith to the Cleveland Browns in May after the one-year-wonder (in Minnesota) defender expressed his desire to leave in March. For about three months, the Vikings stared down the barrel of a season without Smith and Hunter, an odd prospect for a club hoping to improve the defense.

Smith Be Back
Jul 29, 2022; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Vikings outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith (55) looks on during training camp at US Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports.

In the meantime, Minnesota also signed free-agent outside linebacker Marcus Davenport from the New Orleans Saints. From early June to late July, Vikings fans nervously wondered if Davenport, plus a starter like D.J. Wonnum or Patrick Jones II, could do the trick.

Now, that question is moot.

Minnesota Vikings outside linebacker Marcus Davenport addressed the media from the TCO Performance Center. Davenport joined the Vikings in March of 2023 after four seasons with the New Orleans Saints.

Week 1 will showcase Hunter and Davenport, which was probably the plan all along. The Vikings brass and Hunter just had to find middle ground, and one year + $20 million was evidently the happy medium.

Hunter + Davenport always made more sense for a playoff-contending team than Davenport + Wonnum on the edges of the defensive line, especially after Smith left.

3. 2024 Flexibility

Listen, this Hunter deal means the Vikings have no proven EDGE rushers under contract for 2024. The upcoming season is in good shape, but if you’re into early mock drafting, circle an EDGE for Minnesota in Round 1 or 2 next April.

The Vikings Top Defensive Performers vs. Lions, per PFF
Jul 28, 2022; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Vikings linebacker Danielle Hunter (99) during training camp at TCO Performance Center. Mandatory Credit: Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports.

Hunter and Davenport possess one-year deals, and after that, it’s a grand mystery about the 2024 EDGE rushers’ identities. Both men could be back; both could leave. Meanwhile, Minnesota hasn’t selected an EDGE rusher in Round 1 of a draft since 2005. It’s time.

Likely because Kirk Cousins’ contract officially runs out next March, the Vikings prefer the utmost roster and cap flexibility next offseason. Signing Hunter for just one more season confirms the strategy. Adofo-Mensah wants to be financially nimble, and the Vikings haven’t had that luxury in about a decade.

Retaining Hunter for the short term keeps the long-term planning navigable.

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.