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Will there be debates over Vikings trade deadline approach?

The next two weeks could determine Vikings choice of whether to trade star Danielle Hunter.

ON A FLIGHT BACK FROM CHICAGO — The NFL trade deadline is two weeks away and with a win over the Chicago Bears on Sunday there is a strong chance the Minnesota Vikings could be facing a difficult decision over whether to move on from key players in the trade market or not.

No matter how uninspiring the victory, the Vikings’ odds to make the playoffs bumped up to 15.8% by DVOA metrics. Even splitting the next two games will keep them alive heading into the second half of the season considering there is a myriad of middling teams within striking distance battling for the wild card playoff spots, including Los Angeles, Atlanta, Tampa Bay, New Orleans, Washington and Green Bay.

The trouble is that the most valuable possible trade asset is also the player who most gives them a chance to turn the season around on the defensive side: Danielle Hunter.

Against the Bears, Hunter made life miserable for Chicago QBs with four QB pressures and two sacks, including a hit that caused the ball to pop up in the air and land in the hands of linebacker Jordan Hicks for a key turnover. By the end of the day on Sunday, Hunter ranked No. 1 in the NFL in sacks with eight. Oh, and he added five run stops, which led the team.

“I thought yesterday Danielle showed up even much more so than his two sacks,” head coach Kevin O’Connell said. “He was really active on the edge, physical, explosive. Danielle’s a huge part of our defense, whether we’re just rushing four, trying to get him 1-on-1s, or we are sending pressures. And where we have him in the pressure, what gap we have him hitting, moving him around the front – he’s an integral part, and will continue to be so, of [Defensive Coordinator Brian Flores’] plan going into each and every game. I think it’s been critical to have him back, and we’re very, very fortunate that we have him in there.”

Danielle Hunter

Fortunate, indeed. Pair Hunter’s success with an injury to fellow edge rusher Marcus Davenport, who is expected to be out at least a month per NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport, and the Vikings are a one-man band as far as creating QB pressure from the defensive line. DJ Wonnum ranks 99th out of 112 rushers in PFF’s pass rush win rate percentage and Patrick Jones is 105th. On the interior, Harrison Phillips is the highest ranked sitting at 92nd out of 123.

Defensive coordinator Brian Flores has relied on using other blitzers to create pressure like safety Josh Metellus, who has 10 pressures and Ivan Pace Jr. with eight but take away Hunter’s production from the mix and the Vikings would go from eighth in the league in sacks to 28th. The effectiveness of blitzes is not the same without the best sack artist on the team causing havoc for the offensive line on his own.

Put more bluntly: The Vikings are very likely not making the playoffs if they trade away Hunter. We have seen that movie before in 2020 and 2021 when he missed time due to injury.

If the Vikings get to 3-5 before the deadline, would O’Connell and ownership be on board with letting Hunter go somewhere else for the betterment of the long-term plan? Or would they want to chase the postseason with him on the D-line?

While other players hitting free agency next year like KJ Osborn and Jordan Hicks could get something from a team needing depth, last year’s prices at the deadline suggest that only Pro Bowl-caliber players bring back future-changing draft capital. Star linebacker Roquan Smith went to Baltimore for second and fifth-round picks, edge rusher Bradley Chubb went to Miami for a first and fourth and TJ Hockenson came to Minnesota for a second and third.

That type of return for Hunter could make an impact in the 2024 draft, where the Vikings could very well be in a position in which they need to trade up for a quarterback. Kirk Cousins currently does not have a contract beyond this season and the team’s “competitive rebuild” appears to be lining up to select one of the numerous projected first-rounders.

Even if a relatively high pick isn’t used in a trade up for a quarterback, the roster is still in need of work. They could reasonably be looking for two edge rushers, linebacker, help in the secondary and interior offensive line next offseason. Whether they spend a first-rounder on quarterback or not, those positions still have to be addressed for the future. If they do take a QB, any additional picks would be a bonus to fill those spots.

Hunter’s production could be worthy of the team attempting to sign him to an extension after the season rather than sending him away for draft picks but after years of kicking the can down the road with his contract it doesn’t seem likely that he will be willing to sign or that they believe betting on his future production is a wise move.

It’s a tricky position for a team in transition. There is some evidence that the Vikings are stronger than their record — DVOA inventor Aaron Schatz tweeted that they are a team of similar strength as last year’s 5-1 club through six weeks last year. It isn’t far fetched that the perpetually streaky Cousins could catch fire and reel off a bunch of November wins to get the Vikings back in the race, especially when Justin Jefferson returns.

Even if we ignore the storyline about Jefferson’s future contract, trading Hunter at 3-5 might feel to the head coach and owners like bailing on the year when there was still more than half a season to be played and the best football may be yet to come with the defense coming into its own.

The fact that the DVOA numbers say there is around an 84% chance of them not pulling off the comeback would play in the favor of the trade option while the upcoming schedule, belief in the group and desire to return to the playoffs could drive them to keep Hunter.

There’s two scenarios where the decision could be made for them and internal debates could be avoided: 2-0 or 0-2.

If the Vikings beat the 49ers and Packers and advance to 4-4, their chances to make the playoffs amongst a bunch of mediocre clubs jockeying for spots would be much higher than 16%, especially since the win over San Francisco would be extremely impressive. If they lose both games, the playoff odds would be essentially at zero at 2-6 and it would be time to wave the white flag.

If they end up in a position to trade, it will have been part of the bigger picture that seemed to be agreed upon going into the season. If not, it means either something special happened on the field in the next two games or they chose to go against the playoff odds and the “competitive rebuild.” That dynamic will certainly be worth watching.