An offseason of sweeping changes continued this week as the Vikings decided to sever ties with running back Dalvin Cook, who is expected to leave before next week.
And The Purple may not be done moving on – including a potential deal that would officially have their offseason rebuild a full cleat teardown.
Danielle Hunter, who had 10.5 sacks last season and has 71 since being drafted by the team in 2015, could be traded. It would be a move no one saw coming when, at the same time, it might have been inevitable.
The reason for the breakup? You guessed it: money.
Hunter is an accomplished pass thrower who is bolstering that reputation under new defense minister Brian Flores. Flores is a genius at mixing talent and stratagem to annoy his opponents. Hunter, at his peak at 28, could have a career year if he remains healthy.
Hunter is set to earn $4.9 million in 2023 under a five-year, $72 million deal he signed in 2018. That spotty contract, which paid him $20 million last season, has been restructured twice since then. We all agree that Hunter is better than a $4.9 million player. He probably thinks he’s been more valuable than the $14.4 million annual averages, especially when some top runners are now getting more than $20 million a season. Does Hunter deserve Myles Garrett’s money? No. A neck injury in 2020 and a chest tear in 2021 cost Hunter 25 games, making health a consideration. But he has a case for a raise.
The NFL Network reported that the Vikings were responding to calls regarding Hunter as the parties were unable to reach an agreement for an improved contract. The team’s ceiling situation, a challenge since the end of last season, would become more delicate if a long-term agreement is reached. They have Kirk Cousins for the short term and want to lock up Justin Jefferson for the long term.
Vikings fans will already see a very different team in 2023, with Cook, Eric Kendricks, Adam Thielen, Patrick Peterson, Dalvin Tomlinson and Za’Darius Smith all playing elsewhere.
Hunter being dealt with would complete a more extensive restructuring than expected. Just as Aaron Rodgers leaves the division, creating an opportunity for the Vikings to lead the NFC North for a few seasons, their season-long 13-4 roster is being torn apart.
And trading Hunter would be a bigger blow than cutting Cook.
Cook made a cap of $14.1 million heading into his 28-year-old season. He averaged 69 career yards per game in 2022. Cook is being paid to be a returning bell cow in a league in which bell cows are heading for extinction.
Alexander Mattison has backed Cook since 2019, when he was 21, and averaged 4.1 yards per carry. Now about to turn 25, Mattison doesn’t have much wear on him and can catch passes out of the backfield. He’s more of a north-south runner but doesn’t have to carry the load. Slingin’ Kirk Cousins will be looking for as many Jefferson, TJ Hockenson, Jordan Addison and KJ Osborn as possible. Mattison is a reasonable alternative to Cook.
Hunter and Smith combined for 20.5 sacks last season. Tomlinson added 2.5 sacks from inside. That’s 23 of their 38 sacks. Signing free agent Marcus Davenport, who went half a sack last season in 15 games, isn’t a suitable alternative to three-time Pro Bowler Hunter.
There are a lot of unanswered questions before training camp. Can Brian Asamoah replace Kendricks? Can Andrew Booth Jr. and Akayleb Evans replace two corners from Peterson and Duke Shelley who have been ranked in the top 12 by Pro Football Focus? What will Lewis Cine contribute?
If the Vikings can’t reach a deal with Hunter and trade him, the follow-up question is easy to answer: no, they don’t have a replacement for him.
The Chicago Bears had a league-low 20 sacks all last season. How did this defense unfold? Now imagine the Vikings without rushing.
Pack some lunch, Coach Flores, if Hunter gets traded.
For everyone else, it will be time to modify your already reduced expectations for the 2023 season.