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Zulgad: Vikings keep focus in the right place by resolving Danielle Hunter’s contract situation

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Minnesota Vikings defensive end Danielle Hunter (99) leaps during the second half of an NFL football game against the Seattle Seahawks, Monday, Dec. 2, 2019, in Seattle. The Seahawks won 37-30. (AP Photo/John Froschauer)

The opening of the Vikings’ three-day mandatory minicamp on Tuesday at TCO Performance Center was expected to hold a bit more intrigue than usual given it was an unknown whether Pro Bowl defensive end Danielle Hunter would show up. It had been no secret that Hunter was looking for a rich adjustment to the five-year, $72 million contract extension ($40.007 million in guarantees) that he signed in June 2018.

Hunter had skipped the voluntary Organized Team Activities this spring and was risking a fine of $93,085 if he didn’t show for the minicamp. Hunter’s absence would have made a statement — his $14.4 average salary made him the 17th highest-paid pass-rushing end in the NFL — but it also would have served as an unnecessary distraction for a team coming off a disappointing 7-9 season and with coach Mike Zimmer facing significant pressure to produce a winner.

On Monday, the Vikings wisely removed that potential distraction by agreeing to terms with Hunter on a reworked contract that should mean he’s at the Vikings’ facility on Tuesday. According to NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport, Hunter will  get $5.6 million of the money owed to him in 2021 as a signing bonus, meaning he will receive the cash quicker than he would have if it was part of his base salary.

That will make Hunter happy, but the big difference will come in March of next year. That’s when a new $18 million roster bonus is set to kick in for Hunter on the fifth day of the league year. According to NFL.com, the Vikings will be able to either keep Hunter at $20 million — with $18 million guaranteed via the roster bonus, if he’s still on the team on that date — sign him to a new deal or release him in order to save money.

The way the contract was structured by Vikings salary-cap whiz Rob Brzezinski is important because it creates a potential out for the team, if Hunter isn’t the same player he was before undergoing season-ending surgery to repair a herniated disc in his neck last October. It was at that point the Hunter camp made it clear they wanted a new contract, even though he never played in a game in 2020.

The question was how big did the contract need to be? There was mention of the $27 million per year that the Chargers’ Joey Bosa received in the five-year, $135 million contract extension he signed with the Chargers last summer. The Vikings weren’t going to give the 26-year-old Hunter that type of pay day, not with his contract running through 2023.

But Hunter no longer thought his contract was fair and he wasn’t wrong. He had 14.5 sacks in each of the two seasons before he sat out. He also had started 48 consecutive games from 2017 to 2019. This agreement gives Hunter more money short term and the Vikings the ability to see if he’s still the same dominant player.

It also makes Zimmer a happy man. The Vikings’ defense was the worst Zimmer has coached since taking over in 2014 and it has been made clear for much of the offseason that Zimmer plans on changing that. Without Hunter, the Vikings were 28th in the NFL in sacks with only 23 last season. Zimmer always has put defense first and the thought of not having Hunter rushing from the left end likely cost him some sleep, especially since the Vikings struck out in free agency as they attempted to sign a right end.

A holdout by Hunter would have put the Vikings in the difficult position of doing auditions at both defensive end spots after working to retool the interior of the defensive line and much of the secondary.

Hunter’s situation being resolved for now also leaves the Vikings in a far better spot than the arch-rival Green Bay Packers. The Packers, coming off back-to-back 13-win seasons, are faced with the very real possibility that quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ unhappiness with the franchise means he won’t show up for training camp. At this point, the Packers’ training camp figures to be a media circus when it opens and no team wants that no matter how much it claims distractions aren’t an issue.

Hunter’s potential absence wouldn’t have caused near the level of angst that Rodgers’ would, but it would have been something Zimmer and his team didn’t need. On Monday, the Vikings made sure that was an issue they won’t have to worry about.