An offseason of sweeping change continued this week as the Vikings moved to cut ties with running back Dalvin Cook, who is expected to be gone before next week.
And The Purple might not be done making moves — including a potential deal that would officially make their offseason rebuild a complete teardown to the studs.
Danielle Hunter, who had 10.5 sacks last season and has 71 since being drafted by the team in 2015, could be traded. This would be a move no one saw coming while, at the same time, might have been inevitable.
The reason for the breakup? You guessed it: money.
Hunter is an accomplished pass rusher who stands to buttress that reputation under the new minister of defense, Brian Flores. Flores is a genius at blending talent and scheme to fluster opponents. Hunter, in his prime at age 28, could have a career year if he remains healthy.
Hunter is scheduled to make $4.9 million in 2023 as part of a five-year, $72 million contract he signed in 2018. That uneven contract, which paid him $20 million last season, has been restructured twice since then. We are all in agreement that Hunter is better than a $4.9 million player. He likely feels he's been more valuable than the $14.4 million annual averages, especially when some top edge rushers are now getting more than $20 million a season. Is Hunter worthy of Myles Garrett money going forward? Nope. A neck injury in 2020 and pectoral tear in 2021 has cost Hunter 25 games, making health a consideration. But he has an argument for a raise.
The NFL Network reported the Vikings are fielding calls about Hunter as the sides have been unable to work out a deal for an enhanced contract. The team's cap situation, a challenge since the end of last season, would get trickier if a long-term deal is made. They have Kirk Cousins for the short term and want to lock up Justin Jefferson for the long term.
Vikings fans already are going to see a vastly different team in 2023, with Cook, Eric Kendricks, Adam Thielen, Patrick Peterson, Dalvin Tomlinson and Za'Darius Smith all playing elsewhere.
Hunter being dealt would complete a restructuring more extensive than anyone anticipated. Just when Aaron Rodgers leaves the division, creating an opportunity for the Vikings to rule the NFC North for a few seasons, their roster from a 13-4 season is getting ripped apart.
And trading Hunter would be a bigger blow than cutting Cook.
Cook carried a $14.1 million cap hit heading into his age-28 season. He averaged a career-low 69 yards a game rushing in 2022. Cook is being paid to be a bell cow running back in a league in which bell cows are heading toward extinction.
Alexander Mattison has backed up Cook since 2019, when he was 21, and has averaged 4.1 yards a carry. Now about to turn 25, Mattison doesn't have a lot of wear and tear on him and can catch passes out of the backfield. He's more of a north-south runner but doesn't have to carry the load. Slingin' Kirk Cousins will be looking for Jefferson, T.J. Hockenson, Jordan Addison and K.J. Osborn as much as possible. Mattison is a reasonable alternative to Cook.
Hunter and Smith combined for 20.5 sacks last season. Tomlinson added 2.5 sacks from the interior. That's 23 of their 38 sacks. Free-agent signing Marcus Davenport, who had a half-sack last season in 15 games, is not an adequate alternative to the three-time Pro Bowler Hunter.
There are many unanswered questions heading into training camp. Can Brian Asamoah replace Kendricks? Can Andrew Booth Jr. and Akayleb Evans replace two corners in Peterson and Duke Shelley who were ranked in the top 12 by Pro Football Focus? How will Lewis Cine contribute?
If the Vikings can't work out a deal with Hunter and trade him, the follow-up question is easy to answer: No, they don't have a replacement for him.
The Chicago Bears had a league-low 20 sacks all last season. How did that defense fare? Now imagine the Vikings without a pass rush.
Pack a lunch, Coach Flores, if Hunter is traded.
For everyone else, it will be time to modify your already-lowered expectations for the 2023 season.