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Zulgad: Vikings’ decision to stick with Cousins, means trading Hunter would make no sense

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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)

The Vikings’ decision to give Kirk Cousins a one-year, $35 million contract extension that lowered the quarterback’s salary cap hit by about $14 million served as an indication the team had every intention of being competitive in 2022. Cousins had drawn interest on the trade market and he likely could have brought back a package of draft picks that would have been useful for a team coming off back-to-back losing seasons and with a new general manager (Kwesi Adofo-Mensah) and coach (Kevin O’Connell) in place.

But if the decision on Cousins showed a commitment to being all in for next season, the report that the team is exploring trading defensive end Danielle Hunter showed a potential disconnect at TCO Performance Center that could make the Rick Spielman-Mike Zimmer feud look like child’s play.

Why would you work so hard to keep a good but not great quarterback, only to jettison a player who is one of the best at what he does in the NFL? Hunter’s health has been an issue the past two seasons — he missed all of 2020 because of a herniated disc in his neck and then was sidelined after seven games last season because of a torn pectoral muscle — but if he’s going to be moved, the Vikings would have been wise to trade Cousins as well and accumulate as many future assets as possible.

It’s no surprise that Hunter’s situation almost certainly comes down to money. Dissatisfied with his contract last spring, Hunter was expected to hold out from the Vikings’ mandatory minicamp before the team agreed to give him $5.6 million of the money he was due in 2021 as a signing bonus. They also created an $18 million roster bonus that would be paid on the fifth day of the 2022 league year. That would be Sunday.

This appeared to force a tough decision for the Vikings, but in reality it should be simple. By converting that roster bonus into a signing bonus, the Vikings can create $13.5 million in cap space for 2022 and spread out Hunter’s cap hit. The Vikings don’t need Hunter’s consent to make the move. (This is assuming there isn’t some type of catch in the agreement that wasn’t reported.) Hunter’s current $25.839 cap hit for 2022 is second on the team to Cousins.

So why are the Vikings trying to trade one of their best players, after deciding to keep Cousins? Is Hunter again threatening to hold out, a move that would cost him big money. Hunter’s contract runs through 2023 before two void years kick in. He will turn 28 on Oct. 29 and had six sacks last season before being injured against Dallas. That total put him second on the team to D.J. Wonnum’s eight sacks, despite the fact Hunter played in 10 fewer games.

Hunter had 14.5 sacks in 2018 and 2019, his last two full seasons and was the fastest player in NFL history to reach 50 career sacks. He’s a special talent and there is no reason to believe he isn’t going to rebound from his latest injury. But Hunter ranks 18th among pass rushing ends with an average salary of $14.4 million and being injured in consecutive seasons might have hammered home the point about just how short an NFL career can be, no matter the talent of the player.

The Vikings plan to switch to a 3-4 base defense next season, but the word is Hunter has no objections to standing up and rushing the passer. So that shouldn’t be the issue, and there is little doubt that Hunter would find success in any defensive scheme.

The Hunter camp and the Vikings have managed to keep things quiet, but that only creates more questions about what the team is doing and whether everyone is on the same page. What we do know is the Vikings’ offense should score plenty of points in 2022, but an already suspect defense might be without its most talented player.

Maybe the Vikings’ plan eventually will make sense. Right now, however, there are very mixed messages coming from the team’s leadership.