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Vikings' defensive priorities in free agency start with return of Danielle Hunter, Michael Pierce

MINNEAPOLIS -- Two weeks before the start of free agency, the Minnesota Vikings began making moves that will allow them the flexibility to upgrade their roster. That kicked off with the cost-cutting release of tight end Kyle Rudolph on Tuesday.

The move that yielded $5.1 million in salary cap savings appears to be the first of several as the Vikings look to get under the cap (they're over by $5 million) to sign unrestricted free agents.

"There's a lot of decisions that have not been made yet," Vikings general manager Rick Spielman said on Wednesday. "I know we've got kind of a general ballpark on what we're going to have to do, but a lot of those decisions are yet to be determined. We still have a couple of weeks before free agency starts [March 17] and we have to be at that cap number."

The offense is very much the Vikings' strength, and Spielman said as much when addressing how much more "competitive from a personnel standpoint" Minnesota needs to be on defense.

"I'd say pretty simply get our core players back," Spielman said. "Add some players in free agency and depth and get better overall on the defensive side from a personnel standpoint. Then continue to develop the young guys we drafted last year."

So with the focus pointing toward the defense, here's a look at where things stand for the Vikings and how they'll address several areas they hope to improve.

Pass-rushers needed, but return of Hunter and Pierce will help

The Vikings ranked 28th in sacks in 2020 without Pro Bowl defensive end Danielle Hunter, who underwent surgery for a herniated disk in his neck, and nose tackle Michael Pierce, who opted out due to COVID-19.

The return of Hunter and Pierce -- both of whom Spielman said are expected to be back in the fold this offseason -- should pay dividends on the defensive line. Spielman said Wednesday that Pierce "looks in great shape" and Hunter continues to progress through his rehab.

"I think those two would help for sure. That's almost like adding two free agents to this year's class," Spielman said.

Spielman also stated that it was never communicated to him that Hunter wanted to be the highest paid defensive end or play elsewhere after a report surfaced the day he was ruled out for the season last October.

Hunter, who had 54.5 sacks through five seasons and back-to-back Pro Bowl honors, signed an extension in 2018 and is under contract for the next three seasons. Hunter, who became the fastest player ever to reach 50 sacks, carries an average salary of $14.4 million per year.

Even with the expected return of two starters, Minnesota needs to address other areas on the defensive line. That starts with finding another edge rusher to play opposite Hunter. Whether they can afford to bid for the Bengals' Carl Lawson, who has played in a similar defensive scheme, the Steelers' Bud Dupree, the Bucs' Shaq Barrett or the Giants' Leonard Williams will be determined by how much cap space they can create.

That's not to say they won't be active in signing less expensive veterans once the first wave of free agency wraps up. They already added Stephen Weatherly, a defensive end who was drafted by the Vikings in 2016 and played four seasons in this scheme, to a one-year deal, according to a source. He should be able to provide immediate help in the pass-rush rotation. Minnesota can and should be making more moves like that over the next few weeks. They could also turn to the draft to bring in more pass-rushers (they also need a disruptive three-technique). The Vikings are confident that having Hunter and Pierce back will provide them with the blueprint for how they want to handle the rest of the defensive line.

Will there be changes at linebackers?

Of course, one way to assure Minnesota's ability to sign elite defensive talent is to restructure or extend the deals of current players to create cap room.

The Vikings have three very good linebackers in Anthony Barr, who is set to return from a torn pectoral muscle that limited him to 1.5 games last season, Eric Kendricks, who missed the final five games of 2020 with a calf injury, and Eric Wilson, who is set to hit free agency.

They will not be able to afford all three.

"You can't fill every hole with expensive players," Spielman said. "If we're not able to sign Eric Wilson back, then a Troy Dye or a or a (Ryan) Connelly or someone like that steps up. Or you draft another guy. If you have those two guys on your roster (Barr and Wilson), it's hard to spend that much money on three linebackers. So it's hard to say that you can put it in a square box because depending on what you do and how you create room, it gives you a lot of different avenues to go down on who you want to keep."

The five-year contract Barr signed in 2019 after he hit free agency only to spurn the New York Jets and return to Minnesota is set to earn him $12.9 million in cash this season. He has the third-highest cap hit on the team at $15.5 million, a number the Vikings would certainly like to lower to allow them the flexibility to sign other players.

If Barr won't take a pay cut, the Vikings could convert a portion of his 2021 base salary ($12.3 million) to a signing bonus, which could be spread out over the final three years of his deal (along with his current prorated bonus). He would have a $1.075 base salary (the league minimum for a player with at least seven seasons). That would bring his cap hit down to roughly $7.6 million. The caveat? His cap hit would be enormous in 2022.

"Anthony is a critical piece -- I know [coach Mike Zimmer] has spoken about it -- of our defense," Spielman said. "Just him on the field creates some ... offensive coaches, they have to scheme for him when he's on the field with whether he's going to blitz or not blitz so it brings some unique perspective that way. But it's all going to depend as we get through these next two weeks how the pieces are going to fit in place."

The future at cornerback

Spielman said a decision will be made shortly on Mike Hughes' fifth-year option. It's hard to see the Vikings making a financial commitment to a player whose injuries have limited him to 24 regular season games over the first three years of his career. It's also uncertain whether the Vikings believe he can contribute regularly as a starter after a neck injury ended his 2020 campaign in October.

"I'm not going to speak about injuries, but we'll make that decision here when we have to," Spielman said.

Both Jeff Gladney and Cameron Dantzler will be critical pieces of the Vikings secondary next season, but cornerback depth remains a priority for Minnesota. Whether they use free agency or the draft to address that need will be determined.