Vikings defensive end Danielle Hunter being unhappy about his contract isn’t anything new. His discontent first surfaced during the middle of last season when he had surgery for a herniated disc in his neck. Hunter missed the entire 2020 season because of the injury.
In March, there was a report by The Athletic, which was subsequently refuted by local Minnesota media, that Hunter could hold out or ask for a trade if he wasn’t given a new contract. Hunter has been a no-show for the Vikings’ organized team activities, which began on May 24.
It remains to be seen whether Hunter will attend next week’s three-day mandatory minicamp (June 15 to June 17). Under the NFL and NFLPA’s collective bargaining agreement, Hunter is subject to a fine of up to $15,515 for the first missed day, $31,030 for the second missed day and $46,540 for the third. He could be fined up to $93,085 for missing all three days of the minicamp. Fining Hunter would be at Minnesota’s discretion.
Hunter’s source of unhappiness
Hunter has no one to blame but himself for his dissatisfaction with his contract. He did himself a big disservice in June 2018 by signing a five-year, $72 million contract extension averaging $14.4 million per year with $40.007 million of guarantees. When Hunter signed the extension, he had demonstrated an ability to get to the quarterback. Hunter had 19.5 sacks over the previous two seasons. Broncos edge rusher Von Miller — who was the NFL’s highest-paid non-quarterback at the time with a six-year contract averaging $19,083,333 per year — had 23.5 sacks during that span.
Sometimes the best deal is the one you don’t make. This old saying is applicable in Hunter’s case. It should have been extremely obvious to Hunter that he was going to be significantly underpaid pretty quickly. Since interior defensive lineman Aaron Donald and edge rusher Khalil Mack were in contract years, it was well known within industry circles that the $20 million-per-year non-quarterback was on the horizon. Donald and Mack signed for $22.5 million per year and $23.5 million per year with the Rams and Bears, respectively, a little more than two months after Hunter got his extension.
Hunter would have been facing a 2019 franchise tag for $17.128 million by merely continuing his performance from the previous two seasons, which he easily exceeded in 2018. His 14.5 sacks were tied for fourth in the NFL. Hunter would have been in a position to join the $20 million-per-year non-quarterback club after a career year while playing out his rookie contract.
Lawrence received a five-year, $105 million contract containing $65 million in guarantees ($48 million fully guaranteed). Clark signed a five-year, $104 million contract with $62.305 million in guarantees where $43.805 million was fully guaranteed at signing in connection with his trade from the Seahawks days before the 2019 NFL Draft.
Hunter’s extension contains $1 million in annual base salary escalators for sacks. His 2019 and 2020 base salaries have each increased by $500,000 when he hit 13 sacks. To earn the entire $1 million salary increase, 15 sacks were required. The escalators aren’t nearly enough for Hunter to keep pace with the changing market conditions.
The market for pass rushers took a significant jump in 2020. Browns defensive end Myles Garrett became the NFL’s first $25 million-per-year non-quarterback last July. About two weeks later, Chargers defensive end Joey Bosa surpassed Garrett. Bosa signed a five-year, $135 million extension averaging $27 million per year. The deal has $102 million in overall guarantees where $78 million was fully guaranteed at signing, which are both the most ever in an NFL contract for a non-quarterback. There are now nine defensive players who have demonstrated an ability to consistently pressure quarterbacks with contracts averaging $20 million per year or more.
To make matters worse, Hunter compounded his error by signing a lengthy below-market extension as a 23-year-old ascending player. Hunter’s contract runs through the 2023 season. He is scheduled to make $12.75 million in each of the remaining three years of his deal. Had Hunter done a three-year extension in the same $14.4 million-per-year neighborhood, his contract mistake would have been minimized. 2021 would have been his contract year.
There seemed to a bit of revisionist history taking place regarding Hunter’s contract recently where a Vikings source was a little defensive with NFL insider Josina Anderson. Former longtime Eagles president and Browns CEO Joe Banner disagreed.
Banner was ahead of the game in salary cap management and player contracts during his tenure in Philadelphia. His philosophy of re-signing core players well in advance of their contracts expiring was instrumental in the Eagles making four consecutive NFC Championship Game appearances during the early 2000s.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that executive vice president of football operations Rob Brzezinski, who has been managing the Vikings’ salary cap and negotiating player contracts for over 20 years, is getting tremendous value with Hunter. Brzezinski is excellent at his job.
What could be done for Hunter
Hunter’s circumstances aren’t ideal for trying to force Minnesota’s hand into a new contract this year. Quite frankly, he doesn’t have much leverage after missing all of last season because of an injury even though he is an elite pass rusher when healthy. Only Cardinals edge rusher Chandler Jones and Donald had more than Hunter’s 29 sacks during the 2018 and 2019 seasons.
Players receiving extensions with three years remaining is a rarity despite the Cardinals’ treatment of wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, who was acquired from the Texans in a trade last offseason. He became the NFL’s highest-paid non-quarterback at $27.25 million per year with the two-year, $54.5 million extension he received right before the 2020 regular season started.
The best Hunter should reasonably expect this year is for the Vikings to adopt a similar band-aid approach other teams have taken when Pro Bowl-calibers players — such as wide receivers Antonio Brown, Stefon Diggs and Julio Jones, as well as tight end Rob Gronkowski — felt underpaid at similar stages of their deals.
With Brown, the Steelers adhered to their longstanding policy of not renegotiating contracts until one year is remaining (quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has been the lone exception). Brown had clearly outperformed the five-year, $41.9 million extension he signed in 2012 after just two NFL seasons.
Instead, Brown was given a $2 million raise in 2015 by taking money from his 2016 base salary. A little more than $2.5 million of much-needed cap room was created in the process because the money was converted into signing bonus along with a big portion of Brown’s 2015 base salary. The Steelers were able to placate Brown again in 2016 through this concept with a $4 million increase coming from his 2017 compensation.
The Patriots finally addressed Gronkowski’s perpetual unhappiness with the six-year, $54 million extension he signed in 2012 to become the NFL’s highest-paid tight end by average yearly salary in 2017. $5.5 million of incentives were added to Gronkowski’s 2017 contract year. He earned the entire amount when he was named first-team All-Pro by the Associated Press. If Gronkowski hadn’t garnered the All-Pro honors, he was assured of earning $3 million of his incentive package by hitting the 1,000-receiving-yard mark. At least 90% offensive playtime, 80 catches, 1,200 receiving yards or 14 touchdowns would have been needed to attain the extra $2.5 million absent the All-Pro selection.
The Falcons averted a training camp holdout from Jones three years ago when his 2018 salary was increased by $2.9 million while simultaneously reducing his 2019 compensation by the same amount. A commitment to renegotiate Jones’ contract in 2019 was also given with the salary adjustment.
The Bills tweaked Diggs’ contract during the early part of training camp last year after acquiring him from the Vikings in an offseason trade even though he had four years remaining on his deal. Coincidentally, the five-year extension Diggs signed with the Vikings in July 2018 had the same base value as Hunter’s deal.
Diggs’ 2020 compensation increased by $3.3 million from $11.4 million to $14.7 million. $1.8 million of the $3.3 million was a signing bonus when his contract was modified. His 2021, 2022 and 2023 compensation decreased by $316,666, $1.425 million and $1.45 million, respectively. Diggs’ 2021 salary guarantees increased by $7.7 million in the process. There was also a slight modification to the base salary escalators already in the contract.
Hunter skipping a portion of training camp in an effort to get a new contract would be costly. Teams are required to fine players like Hunter, who aren’t on rookie contracts, $50,000 per day with training camp absences. Under previous CBAs, the fines could be reduced or waived. Fine forgiveness or reduction is only allowed for players under rookie contracts with the current CBA.
The Vikings would also have the right to start recovering a small portion of the $15 million signing bonus Hunter received in his 2018 extension with a training camp holdout lasting at least six days. Recoupment would be at Minnesota’s discretion.
Hunter’s eventual saving grace may be the Vikings addressing the gross inequity of wide receiver Adam Thielen’s contract in 2019. Thielen had clearly outperformed the four-year deal he signed in 2017 as a restricted free agent. He got a new contract with two years remaining, which would be 2022 for Hunter. My experience as an agent was that teams tried to avoid establishing new contract precedents at almost all costs. Giving Hunter a new contract with three years left would be something the Vikings aren’t accustomed to doing.
Hunter might be better off in the long run if a true renegotiation occurs next offseason provided he regains some semblance of the form he displayed prior to the neck injury. Steelers edge rusher T.J. Watt, who is scheduled to play this season under his fifth-year option, is expected to reset the non-quarterback market whenever he signs a new contract. 2019 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Nick Bosa will be eligible for a new deal once the 2021 regular season ends. A bounce-back year from the anterior cruciate ligament Bosa tore in his left knee early last season could put the 49ers edge rusher in position to become the NFL’s first $30 million-per-year non-quarterback in 2022. Either of these deals in the marketplace could raise Hunter’s salary floor.