Once a late bloomer, Vikings’ Hunter cashes in
MINNEAPOLIS — The Minnesota Vikings have agreed to terms on a five-year contract extension with Danielle Hunter, making him one of the top 10 highest-paid defensive ends in the NFL while securing another core player before he could reach free agency.
The deal, which was done on Wednesday, is worth up to $72 million, according to a person with knowledge of the contract who spoke on condition of anonymity because the terms weren’t disclosed by the team.
The deal includes $40 million in guaranteed money, with a $15 million signing bonus. The annual average worth is more than $14 million, on par with fellow Vikings defensive end Everson Griffen.
“I had to get this out of the way,” Hunter said, acknowledging relief to have signed before training camp. “I didn’t want to be bothered by anything.”
Hunter has 25 sacks, three forced fumbles and two recovered fumbles in three seasons, after being drafted in the third round in 2015 out of LSU. Still only 23 years old, Hunter was a top priority to retain at a premium position. Griffen is 30, and primary backup Brian Robison is 35.
“Just looking forward to getting him locked in and what he’s going to continue to bring not only to this defense and this football team, but also the type of character that he brings,” general manager Rick Spielman said.
Over those past three seasons, Hunter and Griffen have combined for 57 sacks, the second most by a pair of teammates in the league behind Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap of the Cincinnati Bengals (58).
The pass rush and run defense provided by these bookends has been a significant part of coach Mike Zimmer’s unit that gave up the fewest points and yards in the NFL last season.
“We build a bond together on defense,” Hunter said. “We go out there, we know we’re brothers. We fight together. We do our assignments. On and off the field we’re really, really close.
Hunter was third in the NFL with 12 sacks in 2016, the most by a defensive end. Born in Jamaica and raised just outside of Houston, the 6-foot-5, 252-pound Hunter was a classic late bloomer the Vikings targeted with confidence he’d continue to develop with the right coaching to complement his measurable physical skills. Spielman and his scouts have been proven right with that pick.
“I kind of came in with the mindset of just playing football. I had a whole bunch of people in front of me, older guys that were able to show me the way, good coaches and a good coaching staff,” Hunter said. “The only thing I could do is just come in here and focus and play football.”
The Vikings extended middle linebacker Eric Kendricks earlier this offseason. Outside linebacker Anthony Barr and wide receiver Stefon Diggs are their other two standouts on expiring contracts, with space under the salary cap dwindling. Signing both of them to new long-term deals might not be possible.
They’re plenty happy to at least have Hunter around well into the next decade, though. According to statistics compiled by Vikings coaches, Hunter also has 125 quarterback hurries and 147 total tackles. He has never missed an NFL game to injury, with his only two absences coming in 2015 when he was on the inactive list in the first month of his rookie year.
“It’s all about keep continuing to improve my game. I’ve got to go out there and do what the coaches tell me to do. Now that I have this I can’t relax,” Hunter said. “I have to keep pounding and grinding.”