While the Vikings explored trading defensive end Danielle Hunter, they held onto the Pro Bowl pass rusher as his $18 million roster bonus became guaranteed on Sunday.
Earlier this month, Vikings General Manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah said the team would "talk through all the possibilities" to keep Hunter on the roster as the massive guarantees loomed on the fifth day of the 2022 league year. While this does not preclude the Vikings from redoing Hunter's contract, the cap-strapped front office appeared unable to lower his $25.8 million salary cap hit through a restructure or extension before he was guaranteed $18 million.
The Vikings can still clear salary cap space "during the duration" of the contract by converting any portion of the roster bonus into a signing bonus, according to Hunter's contract, with only an e-mail or phone call required to notify him. Hunter must report to training camp on time to receive the first $6 million installment, which is scheduled to be paid within the first 10 days of camp.
Holding onto the 27-year-old Hunter — the NFL's youngest player to reach 50 career sacks — keeps the only proven pass rusher currently on a Vikings roster thin for options to play edge rusher in defensive coordinator Ed Donatell's 3-4 front.
"He is a really good football player, and to build championship teams you need a lot of really good football players," Adofo-Mensah said on March 1. "He is somebody who we want to continue to work with going forward, and we're excited to talk through all of the possibilities with that."
Hunter is one of the NFL's top edge defenders when healthy. But he has appeared in only seven games over the past two seasons, undergoing season-ending surgeries to repair a cervical disc herniation and torn pectoral muscle. He returned to form last year after neck surgery, and had six sacks in seven starts before tearing a pectoral muscle in the Oct. 31 loss to Dallas.
After the neck injury in 2020, Hunter originally sought to upgrade his five-year, $72 million contract signed in 2018. The contract impasse led to Hunter holding out of voluntary organized team activities last spring for the first time in his NFL career. The Vikings and Hunter bridged the gap with a restructure that put money in Hunter's pocket sooner, and created the $18 million bonus with the anticipation of restarting negotiations.
While Hunter is set to earn $20 million in cash this season — the fourth most among edge rushers behind only the Steelers' T.J. Watt ($24 million), the Chargers' Joey Bosa ($21.25 million) and the Titans' Harold Landry ($20.25 million) — he is scheduled to earn a $4.9 million base salary in 2023, the final year of his current deal. That relatively low salary could spur another round of negotiations or trade talks if the Vikings keep Hunter's contract as is through this season.
Hunter can increase his 2023 salary through sacks under his current deal. He gets a future pay bump of $500,000 with 13 sacks this season. That raise increases to $1 million if he reaches 15 sacks.
Staff writer Ben Goessling contributed to this report.