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Why Danielle Hunter could be worth another big swing from the 49ers

It could take a second-round pick plus extras to land the Vikings pass rusher.

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Minnesota Vikings Training Camp Photo by David Berding/Getty Images

The 49ers have already taken one big swing to improve their defensive line this offseason, landing Javon Hargrave in a splash signing few anticipated. A little over a month out from training camp, there could be an opportunity to add more star power to their vaunted front.

Until recently, acquiring Danielle Hunter may have seemed as unlikely as Hargrave’s arrival did back in March. However, with Hunter holding out having decided to skip Vikings minicamp amid an apparent contract impasse, there is at least a small possibility the 49ers could make an ambitious move to land the three-time Pro Bowl edge rusher.

Hunter is in the final year of his contract and will earn only $4.9 million in base salary, having previously restructured his deal to push money into 2022. The Vikings, per ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler, are minded to keep Hunter.

Yet with the two sides seemingly on different pages, teams have inquired about a trade for Hunter, with Fowler believing he could command a second-round pick plus additional compensation.

Having had to wait until the third round to pick in 2023, the 49ers might not be keen to part with much in the way of draft capital this year. They will need to keep hitting on picks to supplement what is becoming an increasingly expensive roster with the level of talent they have on both sides of the ball.

But the reality is the 49ers remain a win-now team, one that will continue to explore high-profile trades if they believe a player can put them over the top.

The price in terms of draft compensation could be high, but Hunter is one such player and would cost only $5.5 million against the cap. That low cap hit is one of several reasons why the Niners should be trying to tempt the Vikings into dealing their best pass rusher.

Production and explosion

The most obvious reason why the 49ers should have at least, by this point, made a call to former employee Kwesi Adofo-Mensah about Hunter is his outstanding history of pass-rush production.

Hunter has racked up 71 sacks in seven seasons – he missed all of 2020 through injury – and has posted double-digit sacks in four of the five seasons in which he has played a full schedule.

He had 10.5 sacks last season, with his 70 pressures tied for sixth-most at his position, according to Pro Football Focus. Hunter led all defensive linemen in pressures that created a sack for a teammate (10).

When a player’s production is that impressive and that consistent, it is no accident and, when healthy, Hunter has shown himself to be a frighteningly athletic pass rusher with an arsenal to win in a variety of ways.

Despite a checkered injury history in recent years, Hunter has lost none of his explosiveness, and ticks a critical box for 49er pass rush with his fantastic get-off.

Hunter does an excellent job of expediently closing the gap between himself and the pass protector. His speed off the snap enables him to quickly put offensive tackles in the race working backwards when he attacks around the edge. Additionally, it allows Hunter to get to the second phase of his rush – the move – in a hurry.

And his stable of moves is well-stocked.

A well-refined arsenal

Hunter is blessed with arms over 34 inches long, in the 77th percentile for edge rushers, and he uses that length to devastating effect.

The long arm move is a staple weapon of most pass rushers. It is simple, but often brutally effective, especially when a player possesses Hunter’s level of power.

Watch Hunter here against the Giants. Going against Evan Neal, he gains substantial ground with his first two steps to put Neal in the race before getting his inside arm into his pads, controlling the battle throughout and easily tossing the rookie aside at the top of his rush to pressure Daniel Jones into an incompletion.

That power helps Hunter dominate when he takes an even simpler approach with a straight bull rush. Here against the Colts, Hunter transforms his explosiveness off the snap into tremendous force, walking the left tackle back towards Matt Ryan with consummate ease for the sack.

Speed and power won’t always get the job done, however, and Hunter has some superb alternatives to the straightforward approach.

One of those is the two-hand swipe, which Hunter used to torment Neal in their regular-season matchup last year. Again, Hunter gets Neal working backwards with a tremendous get-off and then defeats his block by following the two-hand swipe with the rip while easily flattening to the quarterback.

One of those is the two-hand swipe, which Hunter used to torment Neal in their regular-season matchup last year. Again, Hunter gets Neal working backwards with a tremendous get-off and then defeats his block by following the two-hand swipe with the rip while easily flattening to the quarterback.

The rip is also a common feature of Hunter’s attack, one he used to blow by the right tackle for a sack against the Commanders last season.

What often makes Hunter’s moves so effective is how he sets them up. Hunter has plenty of nuances to his game, which was evident during his dominant performance against the Commanders.

His other sack in that game came as he used a jab step to fake an inside rush. This had the impact of getting the right tackle to flash his hands early, with Hunter taking advantage by beating him with the two-hand swipe and turning the corner to bring down Taylor Heinicke.

A little later, Hunter beat the same opponent in a markedly similar fashion. The only difference was that Hunter faked rushes inside and out before winning to the inside shoulder of the right tackle.

Being able to win inside and out is a must for modern-day top-level pass rushers given the prominence of stunts and twists in defensive game plans.

Unsurprisingly, Hunter can cause chaos on stunts, doing so when running one with Za’Darius Smith against the Giants.

The prospect of Hunter running stunts with Javon Hargrave and Arik Armstead on a regular basis is an extremely tantalizing one. The damage he could do on such plays is unquestionably worth the price of a second-round pick, and the potential acquisition of Hunter would also have a beneficial influence on the 49ers’ depth and flexibility up front.

The luxury of options

Hunter’s injuries, which saw him limited to seven games across 2020 and 2021 because of neck and pectoral injuries, will be a worry for any team considering trading for him.

But the 49ers have reason to be confident they can develop a plan to keep the 28-year-old healthy. That may seem an odd statement at first, considering the Niners’ problems with injuries in years past. However, in Drake Jackson, the 49ers have a player they believe can be a starting defensive end at the highest level. Rotating Jackson and Hunter across from Bosa would have the dual impact of taking much of the burden off Jackson’s shoulders and reducing the wear and tear on Hunter’s body.

Further down the depth chart, having Hunter in the mix would lessen the need for the 49ers to give Clelin Ferrell edge snaps. San Francisco could, therefore, focus on playing him inside, where Ferrell has arguably been most effective in recent times.

Moreover, his arrival would significantly limit the Niners’ dependence on Austin Bryant and rookie Robert Beal Jr. as rotational edge players.

With Hunter added to Nick Bosa, Armstead and Hargrave, the 49ers could bask in having the incredible luxury of four Pro Bowl players on the defensive front in a quartet that can disrupt both the pass and the run game. Hunter, per PFF, ranked 13th in run-stop percentage among all edge defenders with at least 200 snaps.

The 49ers’ secondary made great strides in 2022, but Hunter and his pass-rushing prowess can act as a further guard rail against a potential drop-off from those in the defensive backfield in 2023.

At $5.5 million with the influence he can have on a defense, Hunter represents a bargain for the coming season. The 49ers, who are $10.68 million under the cap – per Over The Cap – have the room to fit him on their books.

The problem, of course, is that Hunter will want a long-term deal, and the 49ers are already in the middle of negotiating an extremely lucrative extension for Bosa.

Yet, it is no secret the Vikings are rebuilding their roster while trying to stay competitive. It isn’t sure what they want to be in 2023. With the 49ers, there is no doubt they are trying to win the Super Bowl. Hunter may be willing to play at his current price to help them achieve that aim and then cash in next offseason in free agency.

Should the 49ers – who typically back load such contracts – attempt to sign him long-term, his injury history does open the possibility of them finding an incentive-laden middle ground.

The 49ers would have plenty of options in how to approach the issue of Hunter’s future if they landed him. That is also what he gives them on the field – options. San Francisco could throw even greater levels of pass-rush talent at their opponents and use their reserve defensive linemen in a more deliberate manner without having to burden them with playing high-leverage snaps.

More than anything else, though, a deal for Hunter would give the Niners another explosive pass rusher with a well-refined set of moves who can win inside and out and also set the edge and make plays against the run.

The prospect of paying a high-price for a possible one-year rental may not be an appetizing one, but it would undoubtedly be worth it if the 49ers get a full season of Hunter at his destructive best.