49ers trade rumors: Why Danielle Hunter could be worth another big swing

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

Until recently, acquiring Danielle Hunter might have seemed as unlikely as Hargrave’s arrival did back in March. But with Hunter holding out after deciding to skip the Vikings’ minicamp amid an apparent contract impasse, there’s at least a slight possibility the 49ers could make an ambitious move to land the triple Pro Bowl edge rusher.

Hunter is in the final year of his contract and will make just $4.9 million in base salary after previously restructuring his deal to squeeze money into 2022. The Vikings, per ESPN’s Jeremy Fowleris set on keeping Hunter.

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

After having to wait until the third round to pick in 2023, the 49ers may not be eager to part with much in the way of draft capital this year. They will need to keep hitting picks to supplement what will be an increasingly expensive roster with the talent level 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 that kind of player and would only cost $5.5 million against the cap. That low cap hit is one of several reasons why the Niners should try to tempt the Vikings to deal their best pass rusher.

The most obvious reason the 49ers should have called former staffer Kwesi Adofo-Mensah about Hunter, at least at this point, is his outstanding history of pass-rush production.

Hunter has amassed 71 sacks in seven seasons — he missed all of 2020 due to injury — and has posted double-digit sacks in four of the five seasons he’s played a full schedule.

He had 10.5 sacks last season, with his 70 pressures tied for sixth 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 this impressive and this consistent, it’s no accident, and when healthy, Hunter has proven 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 hasn’t lost any of his explosiveness, checking a critical box for the 49er pass rush with his stunning departure.

Hunter does an excellent job of closing the gap between himself and the pass protector. His speed off the snap allows him to quickly set offensive tackles on the run working backwards when attacking 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 drafts is well stocked.

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

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

Watch Hunter here against the Giants. Against Evan Neal, he gains significant ground with his first two steps to put Neal on the run before getting his inside arm into his pads, controlling the fight throughout and easily tossing the rookie aside at the top of his rush to force 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 turns his explosiveness off the snap into tremendous power, walking left tackle Matt Ryan with consummate ease for the sack.

However, speed and power won’t always get the job done, and Hunter has some great alternatives to the straightforward approach.

One of them is the two-handed swipe that Hunter used to torment Neal in their regular season matchup last year. Again, Hunter makes Neal work backwards with a huge departure, then defeats his block by following the two-handed swipe with the rip as he easily flattens the quarterback.

One of them is the two-handed swipe that Hunter used to torment Neal in their regular season matchup last year. Again, Hunter makes Neal work backwards with a huge departure, then defeats his block by following the two-handed swipe with the rip as he easily flattens the quarterback.

The rip is also a common feature of Hunter’s offense, one he used to blow by 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 nuance to his game, which was evident during his dominant performance against the Commanders.

His second sack in that game came when he used a stick to fake an inside rush. This had the effect of causing the right tackle to flash his hands early, with Hunter capitalizing by hitting him with the two-handed sweep and turning the corner to bring Taylor Heinicke down.

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

Being able to win inside and outside is a must for modern elite pass rushers given the prominence of stunts and turns in defensive game plans.

Unsurprisingly, Hunter can wreak havoc on stunts when he runs one with Za’Darius Smith against the Giants.

The prospect of Hunter regularly running stunts with Javon Hargrave and Arik Armstead is extremely tempting. The damage he could do on such plays is arguably worth the cost of a second-round pick, and the potential acquisition of Hunter would also have a beneficial impact on the 49ers’ depth and flexibility up front.

Hunter’s injuries, which saw him limited to seven games in 2020 and 2021 due to neck and chest injuries, will be a concern 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 might seem like an odd statement at first, given the Niners’ injury woes in recent years. But in Drake Jackson, the 49ers have a player they believe can be a top-level starting defensive end. Rotating Jackson and Hunter across from Bosa would have the dual effect of taking much of the load 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 probably been most effective in recent times.

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

With Hunter added to Nick Bosa, Armstead and Hargrave, the 49ers could bask in the incredible luxury of having 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 cornerbacks with at least 200 snaps.

The 49ers’ secondary made great strides in 2022, but Hunter and his passing prowess could serve as an additional guardrail against a potential defection from them in the defensive backfield in 2023.

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

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

Still, it’s no secret that the Vikings are rebuilding their roster as they try to stay competitive. It’s not certain what they’ll be in 2023. With the 49ers, there’s no doubt they’re trying to win Super Bowl. Hunter may be willing to play at his current price to help them reach that goal and then cash in next offseason in free agency.

Should the 49ers — who typically backload such contracts — attempt to sign him long-term, his injury history opens the door for them to find an incentive-filled middle ground.

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

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

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

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