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For pretty much the entire offseason it seemed to be a foregone conclusion that the Minnesota Vikings and star edge rusher Danielle Hunter were headed for an ugly divorce.
Hunter, 26, was among the most-dominant pass rushers in the NFL prior to missing the entire 2020 season due to a neck injury. From 2016-19, the former LSU standout combined to record 71 quarterback hits and 48.5 sacks. With him sidelined a season ago, Minnesota’s defense regressed big time.
Now comes this new piece of information regarding Hunter and his Vikings. The still-young defensive end reported to mandatory minicamp on Monday despite being involved in a contract stalemate with the organization. In return, he was rewarded with a restructured contract.
According to NFL Media’s Ian Rapoport, Hunter gets $5.6 million of his $12.15 million base salary in 2021 upfront in the form of a signing bonus.
For the Minnesota Vikings, they create a ton of flexibility should the star edge rusher fail to return to form. That includes an $18 million roster bonus due on the fifth day of the 2022 league year next March. The Vikings can get out from his contract while saving that amount against the 2022 NFL salary cap. They could also pick up the bonus and pay him $20 million next season. This is a huge win for the Vikings. Here’s why.
Minnesota Vikings know full well the impact Danielle Hunter can make
If healthy, the two-time Pro Bowl performer has proven to be a huge difference-maker for defensive-minded head coach Mike Zimmer. Just look at how that unit performed in 2020 compared to the previous four seasons with Hunter in the mix.
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There’s obviously correlation here. Relying on a greenish secondary last season, the Minnesota Vikings defense struggled without a consistent pass rush. In fact, they recorded a mere 23 sacks with Hunter sidelined for the entire campaign.
Minnesota Vikings defensive line is now stacked
Equally as important, the return of Hunter forms what could very well be a dominating defensive line in the Twin Cities. He joins underrated free-agent signing Dalvin Tomlinson as “new additions” to the unit. Meanwhile, 2020 free-agent signing Michael Pierce also returns after the former Baltimore Ravens star opted out of the 2020 campaign due to COVID-19.
Add in fellow edge rushers Stephen Weatherly and rookie Patrick Jones, and there’s no reason to believe Minnesota is going to lack from a pass-rush standpoint. That’s certainly going to help the team’s rebuilt secondary excel after major struggles a season ago.
This is all magnified by the quarterback questions facing opposing NFC North teams this coming season. Jared Goff replaces Matthew Stafford under center for the Detroit Lions. Andy Dalton will likely be the Chicago Bears’ Week 1 starter despite the team selecting Justin Fields in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft.
All the while, reigning NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers remains a holdout from mandatory offseason activities and wants to be traded. Heck, there’s a chance he could sit out the entire 2021 campaign should things remain the same in Green Bay.
The backdrop here is a Minnesota Vikings defense that promises to be vastly improved from a season ago. By being able to bring Hunter back, these Vikes are now set up for success on that side of the ball.
It will certainly be interesting to see how the dynamics play out in the old “black and blue” division now that Hunter is back in the mix.