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Will Danielle Hunter return to Vikings in 2021? Don’t bank on it unless he gets big payday

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Minnesota Vikings defensive end Danielle Hunter warms up before an NFL football game against the Chicago Bears, Sunday, Dec. 29, 2019, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Andy Clayton-King)

As the Vikings’ shorthanded defense completed its meltdown late in the season, Mike Zimmer talked about getting key guys back and healthy in 2021. Zimmer’s list likely included linebackers Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks, cornerback Mike Hughes, defensive tackle Michael Pierce (who opted out because of COVID-19 concerns) and defensive end Danielle Hunter.

Hunter missed the Vikings’ 7-9 season after having neck surgery to repair a herniated disc in late October and his absence was often apparent. The two-time Pro Bowl selection was coming off back-to-back seasons in which he recorded 14.5 sacks in each; without him, the Vikings had only 23 sacks as a team, putting them 28th in the NFL and making life much easier on opposing quarterbacks.

Hunter’s return, assuming he’s completely healthy, would provide the Vikings’ defensive line with a huge lift. But there is another issue that goes beyond Hunter’s health. That would be his happiness with his contract. Although it isn’t being discussed much publicly yet, that subject figures to become a major story in the coming months. The groundwork for this was laid in October when Ian Rapoport of NFL Network relayed the following on Twitter.

It’s fairly obvious Rapoport got his information from Hunter’s camp. It’s also no surprise said camp would want this out there.

In June 2018, Hunter agreed to a five-year, $72 million deal with the Vikings that included $40 million in guaranteed money and a $15 million signing bonus. Hunter, who had only seven sacks in 2017, would have become an unrestricted free agent after the 2018 season if he had waited. Considering his production the following two seasons, it likely did not take Hunter long to regret his decision.

His average salary of $14.4 million per season puts Hunter 18th among edge rushers in the NFL, according to the Over The Cap website. That’s not exactly a good deal for a guy who became the youngest player in NFL history to reach 50 career sacks, when he did it at the age of 25 years and 40 days in 2019.

Hunter deserves a raise, the question is how much of a raise?

If Hunter really wants to be the highest-paid defensive player in the NFL, that would mean paying him more than the $27 million per year that Chargers defensive end Joey Bosa gets. Bosa, who had 7.5 sacks in 12 games this season, signed a five-year, $135 million extension in late July that contained $78 million fully guaranteed and $102 million in overall guarantees.

With the NFL salary cap set to decrease from $198.2 million in 2020 to between $190-$195 million in 2021, the Vikings are unlikely to be in a position to write any massive checks for the coming season. That will be especially true if the cap goes lower than $190 million because of the pandemic’s impact. The Vikings also are likely to tell Hunter that they want to see how he comes back from his neck surgery.

Hunter, however, is likely to inform the Vikings that he is done playing for below market value and sees no reason to jeopardize himself by returning without a new contract. This is where both sides could dig in and where Hunter decides to demand a trade. There definitely would be a market for his services.

This is the part where many Vikings fans will point out Hunter’s importance to Zimmer’s defense and how their favorite team won’t be parting with one of its best players. Let me remind you that last year the same thing was said about Stefon Diggs. That reports and media speculation about the wide receiver being traded were foolish because he wasn’t going anywhere.

And then Diggs was dealt to Buffalo for a package of draft picks that brought back a first-rounder that turned into rookie standout Justin Jefferson.

Who knows? Maybe Hunter has had a change of heart about what he wants since that October tweet by Rapoport. But if he hasn’t, don’t be surprised if Vikings general manager Rick Spielman begins to work the phones again in an effort to relocate another disgruntled superstar.