Last week, Vikings defensive end Danielle Hunter signed a big, fat, five-year, $72 million deal with $40 million guaranteed.
I’m a little ashamed to admit that my first reaction was, “Who he?”
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His name just isn’t on my radar as being a guy who would be pulling down that kind of dough. But he is. A third-round pick from LSU in 2015, Hunter had 12.5 sacks in 2016 and became a starter last season. He’s a good, young defensive end for one of the NFL’s better defenses.
Why is he relevant? Because his contract is now a comp for Trey Flowers to use as he and the Patriots try and figure a way to keep him around past 2018. Flowers – like Hunter – is entering his fourth season. He basically missed all of his rookie season with a shoulder injury after being drafted in the fourth round out of Arkansas.
In 2016, he emerged as a rising star with seven sacks in the regular season and 2.5 more in the playoffs. Last year, he had six sacks. He is the Patriots best young pass-rusher.
But – as the recent past has shown – the Patriots are not afraid to slow play negotiations with their defensive players or turn them into trade pieces.
It wasn’t long ago that a running offseason conversation revolved around how the Patriots would keep Chandler Jones, Donta Hightower, Jamie Collins and Malcolm Butler. They couldn’t keep them all, but a combination of three seemed imperative. The team was squirreling money away.
Then they traded Jones away in early 2016 before trading Collins on Halloween. The team let Hightower test the market as a free agent in early 2017 and he came back for less than what we all figured he’d make. And the Patriots let Butler walk away this offseason.
So one remains and he stayed for less.
Whether that’s a cautionary tale for Flowers or not, we don’t yet know. There’s really nothing not to like about his game. He’s a technician. He wouldn’t say crap if he had a mouthful (that’s an old saying of my mother’s). He’s pretty durable. He’ll be good for a while.
It’s easy to imagine the Patriots getting sticker shock after seeing the money thrown at Hunter. But – bizarre as it sounds - $72M isn’t what it used to be. The salary cap was $120M in 2011 when the new CBA started. It’s now $177M.
So-called “reasonable” contracts are obsolete within a year or two. Consider, Hunter’s teammate Everson Griffen signed a deal that was 4-58-34 last offseason and he’s considerably more accomplished than Hunter.
Time isn’t running out on the Patriots by any means. They can play it out with Flowers all the way through this season and right into free agency next year and then decide if whatever he’s offered is too rich for their blood.
Be certain of this, though. If Flowers has a similar season to his last two, teams will look at his work in the New England defense, compare that to what Jones has been able to do since he’s been untethered in Arizona and then bid accordingly. And it will get steep.