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Danielle Hunter’s Return Gives the 2023 Vikings Real Aspirations

Speculation had been brewing during the off-season that Minnesota Vikings star defensive end Danielle Hunter could potentially hold out during training camp. A holdout would likely lead to one of two outcomes: a new deal or a trade. Hunter did arrive to Vikings training camp along with the rest of the team. However, he was not participating in on-field activities. Questions arose as to what was next for the nine-year veteran.

The tension was alleviated Sunday morning, however, when it was reported that Hunter and the Vikings had agreed to a new one-year deal worth $20 million. With Hunter secured for 2023, the Vikings can now realistically compete to defend their NFC North crown. Sure, no one in the organization would ever admit to punting on a season. But Hunter gives them a proven pass-rusher on a defense with many question marks.

An Off-Season Of Turnover

Following an unlikely 13-4 record in 2022, the Vikings said farewell to many aging veterans on a defense that had already yielded the second-most yards in the NFL. 32-year-old cornerback Patrick Peterson tied for the team lead with five interceptions but wasn’t retained. 30-year-old linebacker Eric Kendricks a starter since his rookie season in 2015, was let go as well. And as if that wasn’t enough, 30-year-old EDGE rusher Za’Darius Smith got his wish and was traded out of town after finishing second on the team with 10.0 sacks in 2022.

As you can imagine, Smith finished only behind Hunter (10.5) in sacks. Losing Hunter would have meant that the Vikings lost 20.5 sacks on a team that only totaled 38 in 2022. On top of his production, Hunter also has tenure that makes him a leader in the locker room, although he isn’t as vocal as Peterson, Kendricks, or Smith. Although the Vikings were trending younger during the off-season, retaining Hunter helped keep a strong veteran presence along the defensive line.

Unproven Depth

Losing veterans doesn’t sting as bad if the young players behind them have been productive. Unfortunately, the depth behind Hunter and Smith hasn’t shown enough to where the team could have felt comfortable heading into the 2023 season. To replace Smith, the Vikings added former New Orleans Saints defensive end Marcus Davenport. The former first-round pick has struggled to stay healthy during his career and only has 21.5 sacks in five seasons, including 0.5 last year. He did, however, record a healthy 17.6 win percentage on pass blocks last year. Is that enough to replace Smith’s production? That is to be determined.

The replacement for Hunter would have had to have come from in-house. Fourth-year backup D.J. Wonnum notched only four sacks in 368 pass rushes across the regular- and post-seasons. His win rate in rushing the passer was only 8.2%, well below Hunter’s mark of 15.9%. This is consistent with his career marks, which were 7.1% in 2021 (despite recording eight sacks) and 6.6% as a rookie.

The only other options would have been third-year backup Patrick Jones II and second-year undrafted free agent Luiji Vilain. Jones played less than Wonnum, only rushing the passer 166 times. However, his win rate in rushing the passer was higher than Wonnum’s at 10.7% and he, too, recorded four sacks. So far, Jones has shown a few flashes but nothing consistent enough to believe he will ever be more than just a rotational guy. Vilain played sparingly and will have to fight for a roster spot although many people are intrigued to see if he can make a jump in year two.

Masking Other Problems

On top of producing and helping the defensive line, Hunter’s return will help the back end of the defense as well. The cornerback room is filled with intriguing yet inexperienced players. Byron Murphy, Jr. was signed this off-season and is only 25. Behind him are 2022 draft picks Akayleb Evans and Andrew Booth Jr., along with 2023 third-round pick Mekhi Blackmon. A wild card is fifth-year veteran Joejuan Williams who saw first-team reps in the first week of training camp, but so far the former second-round pick’s career has been a disappointment.

If the secondary can be aided by a strong pass rush led by Hunter, then defensive coordinator Brian Flores will be able to maximize his playcalling. Without Hunter, the Vikings would have really struggled to find a requisite pass rush to fuel the new-look defense. With Hunter, Minnesota now has a chance to potentially realize the untapped potential of other players across the board. And if the defense can improve at all to help their high-flying offense, the Vikings can realistically defend the NFC North, a tall task without Danielle Hunter.

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