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Zulgad: Is Danielle Hunter’s situation with Vikings about to move to the front burner?

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Minnesota Vikings defensive end Danielle Hunter walks off the field after an NFL football game against the Detroit Lions, Sunday, Dec. 8, 2019, in Minneapolis. The Vikings won 20-7. (AP Photo/Bruce Kluckhohn)

As much as fans might not want to hear (or see) it and teams hate it, Twitter and Instagram are often the places where a player’s unhappiness with his current team is confirmed. A year ago, this proved to be the case with Stefon Diggs, who used Twitter on multiple occasions to convey his desire to move on from the Vikings. His wish was finally granted with a trade to the Buffalo Bills last March.

A year later, it appears another star Vikings player is using Twitter to send a message and this one comes as no surprise. Danielle Hunter, who did not play last season after having surgery to repair a herniated disk, “liked” three tweets over two days this week from fans who expressed a desire to have the Pro Bowl defensive end on their team. One involved the Las Vegas Raiders and two the Tennessee Titans, including this one that referenced a story in The Athletic.

If this had come out of nowhere, it might be easy to dismiss Hunter’s decision to throw out a few “likes” on Twitter. But putting the pieces of this puzzle together isn’t difficult and to dismiss this situation would be repeating the mistake that occurred a year ago when many were convinced Diggs wasn’t going anywhere.

A potential standoff between Hunter and the Vikings has been brewing since October, when he went from having what coach Mike Zimmer described as a “tweak” in his neck to needing surgery. This was the tweet that Ian Rapoport of NFL Network put out at the time.

The information was interesting but easy to dismiss given the fact Hunter was not going to play and his situation would be on the back burner for months. That is no longer the case. The NFL’s new league year will begin on March 17 and teams are now having to get their salary-cap situations in order. That is especially difficult given the cap will be reduced from $198.2 million to around $180 million because of the pandemic and the Vikings already are about $4 million over the projected cap.

This doesn’t mean Rob Brzezinski, the Vikings’ salary-cap ace and one of the best in the league at his job, couldn’t find a way to make a new contract for Hunter work, but it would make life more difficult because each time a player gets a rich deal it has to come from somewhere and, at some point, it comes at a significant price.

Vikings general manager Rick Spielman, asked about Rapoport’s tweet from last fall during a video conference with reporters on Wednesday, said that information about being the highest-paid defensive player in the NFL, or wanting a trade, had never been communicated to him. Spielman, however, is the same guy who confidently said he would not have to trade Diggs or Percy Harvin and ended up dealing both of them.

Beyond the Vikings’ current salary-cap issues, Hunter also has them in a tough situation for a few reasons. Hunter is one of the best defensive ends in the NFL, when he is healthy. He had 14.5 sacks in both 2018 and 2019 and has double-digit sacks in three of his five seasons. Last season, without Hunter, the Vikings finished with 23 sacks total, the lowest in franchise history since sacks became an official stat in 1982.

There is no question that Hunter is underpaid. He signed a five-year, $72 million contract in June 2018 that included $40 million in guarantees. Many will say that Hunter signed the contract and it’s too bad but that’s not how he will see it. What he sees is he’s making an average of $14.4 million per year, putting him 18th among edge rushers, according to the Over The Cap website. The top three are San Diego’s Joey Bosa ($27 million), Cleveland’s Myles Garrett ($25 million) and Chicago’s Khalil Mack ($23.5 million). That’s where Hunter wants to be and it’s hard to blame him.

The problem for the Vikings is that Hunter is coming off neck surgery and that’s enough to scare many teams. Ideally, Hunter would come back, prove that he’s 100 percent and then get rewarded. But his camp likely will say that’s too big of risk and if the Vikings don’t want to pay him somebody else will.

That’s where the Vikings could be forced to trade Hunter, if they don’t want to give him a new contract, or risk not having him not show up for training camp in July. This is one situation where there isn’t a bad guy. You can see Hunter’s point in wanting to get paid — even though he has three years left on his contract and already would carry a $17.25 million salary-cap hit in 2021 — and you can see the Vikings’ point in wanting to wait and see.

Assessing blame is not the goal. The goal is to confront the fact that a situation that could be glossed over four-plus months ago is likely to come to a head in the next few weeks and odds are someone isn’t going to end up being happy.