During Mike Zimmer’s second training camp as the Vikings’ head coach, he received a visit from Greg Ellis, who posted 46 of his 84 career sacks during the seven seasons Zimmer was his defensive coordinator in Dallas.
Zimmer, Ellis and Vikings defensive line coach Andre Patterson looked out on a 6-5 rookie defensive end swiping at offensive linemen with his 34-inch arms, and Patterson – who’d coached Ellis for three years in Dallas -- gave him a nudge.
“[Patterson said to Ellis], ‘Tell him what you think,’” Zimmer recalled Wednesday morning. “And [Ellis] said, ‘This guy is DeMarcus Ware. I said, ‘Come on – you’re crazy.’ But the way he’s progressed, the way he’s improved and the way he’s increased his strength and athletic ability has been really remarkable.”
It remains to be seen whether Danielle Hunter’s career arc in Minnesota matches that of Ware, who led the league in sacks twice and made nine Pro Bowls in 12 seasons with the Cowboys and Broncos. But on Wednesday morning, the Vikings put considerable financial backing to their belief in just how good Hunter can be.
The team announced it signed the fourth-year defensive end to a contract extension, which two league sources said will pay Hunter at least $72 million over five years. He can earn up to $78 million through incentives, and will receive at least $40 million in guaranteed money. Hunter will earn $48 million over the first three years of the deal, including a $15 million signing bonus.
Hunter's deal will be tacked onto his existing 2018 contract, adding five new seasons to that deal. He's under contract through the 2023 season.
“Each guy has clicked differently; some guys take three years, some guys take two, some guys hit it right away,” General Manager Rick Spielman said. “You can’t predict that. The way that we’ve done it is, if they have the traits and they’re willing to do the things we’re asking them to do on the field and off the field – they’re not all the same player, but at least by us staying pretty true to what we’re looking for, we’ve been having success doing that.”
The Vikings’ decision to take Hunter in the third round of the 2015 draft puzzled some at the time, given the fact Hunter only had 1 1/2 sacks in his final year at LSU. But over time, the pick proved to be among the most prominent examples of the Vikings’ success in drafting unrefined players and betting on coaches like Patterson to develop them.
Hunter posted six sacks in a rotational role as a rookie, before breaking out and notching 12 1/2 sacks in 2016, along with a fumble return for a touchdown. He moved into a starting role last season and had seven sacks, while playing more snaps and dealing with greater attention from opposing offensive lines, in 2017.
His average salary of $14.4 million makes him the seventh highest-paid 4-3 defensive end in the league, coming in just behind teammate Everson Griffen., who received a four-year, $58 million extension during training camp last year. The deal means Hunter, who doesn’t turn 24 until Oct. 29, will be counted on to deliver even more production in the future. He didn’t seem unnerved by loftier expectations on Wednesday.
“It’s all about continuing to improve my game,” he said. “Now that I have this, I can’t relax. I’ve got to keep pounding and grinding.”
With Hunter’s deal done, the Vikings’ attention will inevitably turn to linebacker Anthony Barr and wide receiver Stefon Diggs, whose deals both expire after the season.
Spielman said Wednesday the team is speaking with both players’ agents, and hopes to get extensions done with both players. Executive vice president of football operations Rob Brzezinski, who handles the team’s contracts and salary cap, is out of the country on vacation right now, Spielman said; the GM leaves the country for his own vacation on Monday after Brzezinski returns on Sunday.
"I’m going to tag-team him and give him a high-five on the way out," Spielman said.
Now that the Vikings have done new deals with Griffen, Hunter, defensive tackle Linval Joseph, cornerback Xavier Rhodes and linebacker Eric Kendricks in the last 12 months – in addition to giving $84 million in guaranteed money to quarterback Kirk Cousins – their attempt to sign two more high-performing draft picks will consume plenty of their attention.
"Last year, we were able to get three contract extensions, I think, during the early part of training camp or right when we got going," Spielman said. "We’re going to continue to work at it. We want to keep all of our guys, and we’ll try to see if there’s a way that we can do that. Those guys are very important to us, and we’d love to get them locked up as well."