Don't look now, but there are only around three and a half months left until the Vikings' season opener in Cincinnati on September 12th.
The most consequential period of the offseason, at least from a roster-construction standpoint, is in the rearview mirror. But there's still a long ways to go and a lot of questions to be answered, both on the field — with OTAs, mandatory minicamp, training camp, and preseason games — and off of it before Week 1 rolls around.
We'll get more into position battles and things like that prior to the start of training camp in late July/early August, but let's focus on some immediate topics for now. Here are the top four Vikings storylines to keep in mind over the next couple months.
When will Danielle Hunter show up?
It's not getting as much attention as the sagas surrounding Aaron Rodgers, Deshaun Watson, or Julio Jones, but the Vikings may have a disgruntled star situation on their hands as well. Hunter, the superstar edge rusher who is arguably the team's best player, didn't show up for the start of OTAs this week and ESPN's Courtney Cronin has reported that she doesn't expect Hunter to show up at any point in the next few weeks.
This phase of the offseason is technically voluntary, so Hunter's absence isn't surprising, but it is notable. Where things would get more interesting is if he doesn't show up for mandatory minicamp in mid-June. After that, any holdout lasting into training camp could start to get messy, and would come with increasingly large fines for Hunter because of the new CBA.
Let's quickly recap the situation for those who need a refresher. Hunter had a "tweak" in training camp last year that ended up being a herniated disc in his neck which required season-ending surgery. In October, while reporting that Hunter would undergo surgery, NFL Network's Ian Rapaport finished his tweet with a couple very interesting sentences. "[Minnesota] has a decision this offseason: Make Hunter the highest-paid defender in football or trade him," Rapaport tweeted. "Have we seen the last of him in a Vikings uniform?"
That wasn't tweeted for no reason, and it was shocking because Hunter is under contract through the 2023 season. Rapaport almost certainly added that at the urging of someone in Hunter's camp.
Things were then quiet on the Hunter front until March. Vikings GM Rick Spielman was asked about the Rapaport report and gave a decisive "no" when asked if that sentiment — give Hunter a massive raise or trade him — had been communicated to him. A few days later, Hunter stirred the pot by liking tweets about being traded to the Titans or Raiders. And a little over a week after that, The Athletic's Chad Graff dropped a bombshell report stating that Hunter remained unhappy with his contract situation and was considering all options, including holding out or requesting a trade.
The buzz died down again over the past couple months, and the expectation remains that Hunter will be out there for Week 1. But until he either signs a contract extension (more on that in a bit) or reports to the Vikings' facility, this will be a major topic to track.
What's going to happen with Jeff Gladney?
The other Vikings player whose future is up in the air is Gladney, although for an entirely different reason. The 2020 first-round pick out of TCU turned himself in to the Dallas County Jail on April 5th after posting bond on a charge of third degree felony family violence assault. The details of the allegations against him are graphic and extremely disturbing.
Since then, there have been no notable updates on the cornerback's situation. Rick Spielman and the Vikings have said they are letting the legal process play out. Mike Zimmer declined to comment when asked about Gladney. He apparently had a bond hearing earlier this month, but that's all we know.
There was some speculation that the trade of Mike Hughes suggested the Vikings were optimistic about having Gladney available this year, but they've continued pursuing cornerbacks after that, so it may have been completely unrelated. The Vikings signed Parry Nickerson and Amari Henderson as depth corners and made an offer to Bashaud Breeland — one of the top CBs on the market — after hosting him for a visit last week.
We'll just have to wait and see how this situation plays out. There are three potential outcomes based on what happens with the legal process: Gladney winds up getting cut by the Vikings (and potentially goes to jail), he remains with the Vikings but faces a suspension from the NFL, or he avoids punishment entirely.
What will the Vikings do with their cap space?
A big date on the NFL calendar is right around the corner: June 1st. That's when Kyle Rudolph's contract comes off the Vikings' books, giving them another $7.9 million in cap space. Add that to the $6.8 million or so they already have and you're at just shy of $15 million in cap space. Even if you subtract a couple million for the rookie contracts that still haven't been signed, the Vikings clearly have some money to work with.
There are several different things they could do with that money. One, of course, is simply saving it and rolling it over to next offseason. But let's break this question into a couple subsections and talk about the two ways they could spend their available funds this summer.
Are any contract extensions coming?
One way the Vikings could use their cap space would be extending one or more key players. Nearly three months ago, I wrote about the four players most likely to sign extensions this offseason. One of those, Riley Reiff, was released and is now with the Bengals, but the other three — Hunter, Brian O'Neill, and Harrison Smith — remain in line for new deals.
Signing Hunter to a contract that pays him what he deserves based on his production in 2018 and '19 would be a way to end that saga and get him on the field, but the discussion of leverage between the two parties remains a fascinating one. Would the Vikings risk extending Hunter before seeing what he looks like after the neck surgery? Doing so could also set a bad precedent because Hunter is under contract for three more years. But at the same time, they need him. The Vikings' pass rush would be more of the same from last year (read: entirely non-existent) without him.
O'Neill and Smith are less complicated, although you could still make arguments for or against extensions for either player. O'Neill is going into the final year of his rookie contract, and while he's the best player on Minnesota's offensive line, he hasn't been an elite pass protector through the first three years of his career. He's a very good right tackle, but not a truly great one, and the Vikings will have to decide if they want to bet big money on him continuing to improve.
Smith is also going into the final year of his contract. He's been one of the best safeties in the NFL for nearly a decade now, but he also turns 33 years old next February. A relatively short-term extension (maybe three years?) could work out for both sides. I'd imagine the Vikings want Smith to retire as a Viking, but they also don't want to overpay him if his level of play begins declining soon.
Will they sign any impact free agents?
The other way the Vikings could use their cap space is to continue adding to the roster. They made an offer to Breeland, who would be a big addition to their cornerback room. They could also benefit from signing a veteran pass rusher, particularly with Hunter's situation unclear. Ryan Kerrigan is no longer an option after signing with the Eagles, but there are still talented players out there, and the Vikings need more proven options who can after the quarterback. A veteran receiver (Dede Westbrook, perhaps?) could be an impactful pickup for the offense as well.
How will the rookies progress?
Lastly, it's always worth keeping an eye on the rookies throughout OTAs and heading into their first training camp and preseason action. Here are some questions I'll be tracking in that department.
- How will Kellen Mond look as he battles Jake Browning and Nate Stanley for the backup quarterback job?
- How long will it take for Christian Darrisaw and Wyatt Davis to beat out Rashod Hill and Dakota Dozier, who opened OTAs running with the first team offensive line? Zimmer always makes rookies prove themselves, and the two linemen are no different, but it'll be seriously concerning if Hill or Dozier are starting Week 1.
- How will defensive players like Chazz Surratt, Patrick Jones II, Camryn Bynum, Janarius Robinson, and Jaylen Twyman look early on? Jones seems like he's the most pro-ready of that group, but we'll find out.
- Can Ihmir Smith-Marsette live up to the hype? If he emerges as a WR3 option and kick returner, that could be huge for the Vikings.
- Will any UDFAs stand out?
This Wednesday is the first OTA session that is open to the media, and I'll have a full recap of the practice and my takeaways from it coming in the afternoon. Stay tuned for that.
Thanks for reading. Make sure to bookmark this site and check back daily for the latest Vikings news and analysis all offseason long. Also, follow me on Twitter and feel free to ask me any questions on there.