Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Danielle Hunter’s extension is the latest example of Vikings’ roster strategy


The Vikings have developed a strategy for building their roster and Danielle Hunter's extension is the latest example. Daniel House explains how this deal fits into the team's cap situation. 

The Vikings have developed a strategy many teams want to emulate. 

A simple three-step process has allowed them to build a deep roster. The formula: draft or sign young players with high upside, develop them to their full potential and retain the talent to build depth at every position group. Eric Kendricks, Xavier Rhodes, Everson Griffen, Linval Joseph and Adam Thielen are just a few examples of players who followed this formula. 

Arguably, nobody has executed this strategy better than the Vikings’ front office. General Manager Rick Spielman and the scouting staff have a strong idea of the exact player profiles Mike Zimmer and Co. are searching for at each position. Once those athletes are selected, the front office has confidence the coaches can elevate and maximize the available potential. Then, when those players develop, they can sign long-term extensions and become building blocks of the roster. 

No example is stronger than defensive end Danielle Hunter.

A third-round pick in 2015, Hunter was a 21-year-old project with an incredible amount of pure athletic traits. He entered the system and quickly learned under defensive line coach Andre Patterson. Within two years, he quickly elevated his game. Hunter posted 12.5 sacks in 2017 and added another seven quarterback takedowns last season. His sack total declined last year, but the disruptions and overall impact aren’t shown on the stat sheet. On Wednesday, he signed a 5-year, $72 million extension with $40 million guaranteed ($15 million signing bonus), according to Ian Rapoport. This was an extremely team-friendly deal when one considers Hunter's age, ability and production. If he waited until the free agency period, he would have probably commanded at least $4-6 million more than the $14.4 million yearly average he signed. 

With just three years of NFL experience and a small sample size of college playing time, Hunter is potentially on the cusp of a major breakthrough in his career. He turns 24 in October and hasn’t even reached the prime of his career yet. The signing of Sheldon Richardson this offseason is also going to help Hunter receive additional 1-on-1 opportunities on the edge.

With that in mind, the Vikings’ front office realized the importance of locking down Hunter. They followed this strategy recently with a player like Adam Thielen, who signed an extension with a year left on his first contract.

Again, they chose to offer another young player an extension one year before they actually needed to have a deal completed. This type of strategy is smart for multiple reasons.

First, it saves money because both parties are nine months away from free agency. If Hunter has a massive contract year, the value and natural inflation in March aren’t going to sky-rocket. In turn, the athlete is gaining stability in a league where nothing is truly guaranteed without a contract. Secondly, it creates an environment where drafted players understand if they develop, they’ll be rewarded and valued when their contract is set to expire. In the NFL, stability, value and fit mean more to players than people think. This is especially the case when players have the chance to receive an extension before their first contract expires. When looking at many of the contracts Vikings players have signed recently, it is apparent how much they value the culture and new amenities in Minnesota, such as TCO Performance Center.  

Not to mention, this visionary philosophy helps the front office and coaching staff build a team/system which features a stable of key contributors at each level.

It’s how the Vikings have built one of the deepest and most balanced rosters in the entire league. There is no front office with a more visionary outlook on contracts and cap situations than Minnesota. Rick Spielman, along with cap experts Rob Brzezinski and Anne Doepner have managed the roster in a way that provides cap space three or four years down the road. They often complete deals in a timely fashion or structure them with looming deals in mind. This helps the front office reward players who fit the system perfectly.

More importantly, the team drafts players at positions where age or a large contract are on the horizon. One example of this starts with the selection of Mike Hughes. With cornerback Trae Waynes’ contract year approaching, the team wanted to add more defensive back talent. In the event the team wants to save money, they will have enough time left for the coaching staff to develop Hughes into a starter.

The team might also find out they value defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson more next offseason. He could slide into Waynes’ projected allotment, which will likely sit in the $8-9 million per year range.

However, with Eric Kendricks and Hunter locked up, the team can shift their attention toward discussing contracts with wide receiver Stefon Diggs and linebacker Anthony Barr. Many fans are wondering whether both of these players can be extended. With Hunter’s new deal factored into the equation, it’s certainly possible. Several of these new contracts could actually help alleviate cap space based upon their structure. Barr could sign a 5-year deal worth roughly $14 million per year, while Diggs could ink a 5-year deal in the $15-16 million per year range.

With all of the above contracts structured into the equation, the Vikings would likely have roughly $12-14 million in cap space available (very, very early projection based upon expiring deals, future contracts and Spotrac data). The team could also restructure a few contracts such as Everson Griffen and Kyle Rudolph to improve the space.

All of this won’t be simple and might limit a few areas the team wants to fix following the 2018 season. However, the visionary approach to the Vikings’ roster and the latest Hunter deal, leave the door at least cracked to sign both Diggs and Barr.

On the flip side, the team may value waiting to see Barr play in a contract year. Barr might also decide his skill-set better suits a 3-4. This would leave the Vikings with additional cap space to re-sign Sheldon Richardson and/or Trae Waynes.

No matter how you look at it, the Vikings’ approach in the front office has them positioned to keep a deep and successful roster for the future. Even with the splash signings this spring, the team was disciplined and savvy with the structure of deals.

With a new practice facility, stadium and overall culture Mike Zimmer has established, the Vikings have plenty to offer. It’s clear once players spend the early stages of their career in Minnesota, they want to stay for the long-term. That’s part of the reason, but none of it would be possible without the Vikings’ ability to execute a visionary strategy and sign players to extensions similar to Danielle Hunter’s.

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