Vikings

Is Jonathan Greenard A Good Replacement For Danielle Hunter?

Photo Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

The Minnesota Vikings and Houston Texans combined for an interesting experiment this season, essentially swapping edge rushers in Jonathan Greenard and Danielle Hunter via free agency. Greenard got four years, $76 million, with $42 million guaranteed, while Hunter got two years, $49 million, with $48 million guaranteed.

The market dictated that Hunter was a better player. He got $5.5 million more per year than Greenard and also higher guarantees. Hunter’s deal is a bet on himself, where he will be able to hit the market again in two years as the salary cap continues to increase. He also gets to go play in his hometown. Meanwhile, Greenard gets to cash in with strong guarantees after a breakout 2023 season.

From Houston’s perspective, paying up for Hunter, who will turn 30 during the 2024 season, shows the position their franchise is in. After C.J. Stroud‘s excellent rookie season, the team wants to maximize the window it has with Stroud on a rookie deal. Spending big for a consistently elite edge rusher fits into that plan.

Meanwhile, the Vikings are positioning themselves for a big trade-up in the draft in order to get their QB, but they don’t necessarily have the confidence to put all of their chips on the table in 2024. Therefore, it makes sense for Minnesota to get younger at the position with Greenard, who going to be 27 during the 2024 season. The hope for the Vikings is not necessarily that Greenard improves on Hunter in 2024 but rather from 2025 to 2027, when Hunter is in his 30s and probably declining. If Greenard continues to improve, he could play at Hunter’s level while even saving the Vikings money moving forward.

In molding their defense towards DC Brian Flores’ vision, the Vikings have overhauled their edge room this offseason. They signed Andrew Van Ginkel to replace the role D.J. Wonnum primarily occupied in 2023, and Van Ginkel’s perfect fit in that role means that the team envisions Greenard as a Hunter replacement. I’ve made allusions to Hunter being a better player at this point based on how much each was paid, but not everyone agrees. I went to the tape with Greenard to find out who he is as a player. I was able to watch Houston’s games against the Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers, Cincinnati Bengals, Arizona Cardinals, and the Divisional Round playoff against the Baltimore Ravens in 2023.

run defense

For defensive linemen, understanding who they are as players starts with run defense for me. Pass rush is certainly more valuable. However, if a player can’t defend the run, they will end up like a Bryce Huff, who puts up incredible pass-rush numbers but only ever played about 30% of the snaps with the New York Jets. Considering that Hunter played over 1,000 snaps for the Vikings last year, the ability to competently defend against the run is a must for a player replacing him.

Greenard did not play nearly as much as Hunter, with 632 snaps in 15 games, but he led the Texans in snaps among edge rushers, including out-snapping Will Anderson, the No. 3 pick in 2023, in the same number of games. The difference for Greenard was that the Texans had Jerry Hughes, a veteran edge rusher they trusted to take snaps, who helped spell both Greenard and Anderson. Conversely, Marcus Davenport was only able to play 118 snaps due to injury.

The tape backs up Houston’s trust in keeping Greenard (No. 52) on the field. Starting with the Falcons game, the play below is the first one I saw from him. He’s lined up over the TE on the right side of the screen and powerfully knocks back the LT, Jake Matthews, into the FB and RB, creating a pileup and a tackle for loss.

With 34 7/8″ arms, Greenard has extremely impressive length. He can use that to his advantage in the run game, locking out his opponent and using that extension to shed blocks and make tackles.

Greenard’s ability to set a hard edge and disengage from blocks to make plays in the run game is certainly a strength. Below is a compilation of plays where he does just that:

Another strength of Greenard’s is his ability to burst off the line of scrimmage to disrupt the run game. He not only has a quick first step to beat blockers to the spot, but he’s nimble enough to avoid pullers and late double teams.

Greenard’s play against read options was one of the most impressive traits he displayed on tape. There were multiple instances where he was able to respect the QB pull read, forcing the give, and still make the tackle on the RB. Here are a couple of examples:

Finally, Greenard is a gap-sound and high-effort player when the run is away from him. A defensive end is often unblocked on the back side of zone plays, and his job is to “surf” down the line of scrimmage to prevent the cutback. Greenard does this effectively and also showed a high motor on a few plays to chase the run all the way to the opposite sideline for a tackle.

Overall, Greenard is an impressive run defender, and I view him and Hunter on a similar level. Both have the physical attributes, including length and athleticism, technique to take on and shed blocks, and effort level, to be strong run defenders.

Pass Rush

From a metrics perspective, Greenard graded out very well as a pass rusher. His overall PFF pass-rush productivity of 8.2 matched Hunter’s, and he was astounding in ESPN’s pass-rush win rate metric, where his 22% win rate ranked sixth among all edge rushers, following just Micah Parsons, Myles Garrett, teammate Will Anderson, T.J. Watt, and Jadeveon Clowney. Greenard fell a little short of Hunter’s performance in PFF’s charting against true pass sets, with a pass rush productivity of 12.3 and a win rate of 17.7% compared to Hunter’s 12.5 PRP and 25% win rate.

Greenard is primarily a speed-to-power rusher. He is a snap-timer and uses the same great explosive first step I mentioned in the run game to threaten tackles outside. When he gets opposing tackles to overset outside with his initial burst, he’s deadly cutting back to the inside. This play against Cincinnati’s LT Orlando Brown Jr. is a great example, and ends in a sack:

The pop in Greenard’s hands when he makes contact with opposing linemen is impressive and led to him forklifting the Panthers’ LT for a sack here:

These rushes are Greenard’s bread and butter and are how he consistently wins. Here’s a compilation of pass-rush wins from Greenard:

Greenard has a flaw in his game where he ends up leaning too far forward in his rush, and it can lead to some embarrassing losses where the opposing lineman uses a snatch and trap technique to bring him to the ground.

While he prefers to counter inside, Greenard can win around the edge if his opponent is unprepared for it. Greenard prefers simple moves like a swipe a rip to corner, and doesn’t have a major repertoire of moves like the cross chop to win outside.

That leads to some of the issues with Greenard’s pass-rush game, which is a lack of developed moves. It should be noted that Greenard still wins at an impressive rate, but he doesn’t have the same variety that Hunter has developed throughout his career. The Falcons game is an example where an experienced tackle in Matthews was able to regularly lock down Greenard’s pass rush. In the play below, Greenard attempts a cross chop but times the move incorrectly and gets shut down:

You don’t expect a pass rusher to win every rep, but a player like Hunter will continually work his hand fighting and try to layer moves against an opponent. Greenard is inconsistent in attempting that. Here, he’s unable to generate significant push against Matthews with his bull rush and does nothing to disengage to try something different:

There’s also a play-recognition element I’d like to see Greenard develop further. Watching Hunter, you can see that he will regularly put his hands up to try to disrupt a throwing lane against a quick pass. Part of that was due to Minnesota’s blitz-heavy scheme this past season, which meant opponents threw a lot of quick passes, and trying to get your hands up is a natural adjustment for defenses to make. In contrast to Hunter, Greenard rarely got his hands up to disrupt throwing lanes on quick passes.

Here’s an example:

Despite the impressive length I mentioned above, Greenard rarely deflects passes because he rarely gets his hands up. Below is the one deflection I saw, and it’s the result of a nice inside move rather than trying to play against quick game.

There are certainly instances of Greenard being able to win extended hand fights and string multiple moves together, like in the play below. I just hope he can develop more consistency in doing so as he develops as a player.

One final downside to Greenard’s game is the snap timing I mentioned earlier. While timing the snap correctly leads to a big advantage, it also comes at the risk of encroachment, neutral zone infraction, or offsides penalties. Greenard was called for three such penalties in 2023, while Hunter has only been called for two in his entire career. It’s something that you live with when you have a productive edge rusher, and it also somewhat depends on the defense. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that both of Hunter’s penalties came when Ed Donatell was DC, so maybe the switch to Flores will change how Greenard approaches the snap.

In all, Greenard is a very good pass rusher, but he doesn’t quite live up to Hunter’s standard. However, he has really impressive physical traits and plays the game fast and strong, which is a great foundation. What Greenard will need is better technique, which he can hopefully gain in the new scheme. Greenard’s production is a testament to his ability, and the room for growth should allow him to ascend into a top-tier edge rusher like Hunter.

Vikings-Specific Tasks

The Texans ran a straightforward 4-3 defense, and Greenard lined up in the same spot repeatedly. They rarely asked their edge rushers to do anything other than take on opposing linemen and TEs. Under Flores, the Vikings ask their edge rushers to line up in a number of different positions and also take on a slight coverage role. I expect Van Ginkel to be dropping back into coverage way more than Greenard, but Greenard may still need to do it on occasion.

That doesn’t concern me much. If you compare Greenard to Hunter’s career, you will see that Hunter also rarely lined up anywhere but on the edge under Mike Zimmer. However, he lined up in the middle of the field, either over the C in the A gap or in the B gap an impressive 58 times and was dominant rushing from the interior. I think Greenard has the quickness to do the same.

As far as coverage goes, Hunter dropped into coverage just 14 times in 2023 after dropping a career-high 34 times under Donatell. Considering Greenard dropped 10 times, I don’t think this will be a major change for him. There’s not much to glean from them, but here are his two coverage drops from the games I watched:

Conclusion

So, is Jonathan Greenard a true replacement for Danielle Hunter? Not quite, but he’s a quality starter with room to grow as a younger player. Greenard is a fantastic run defender, and I put him on the same level as Hunter, whose run defense I hold in high regard. That’s a fantastic starting point. But if that were all Greenard had, the Vikings would be paying him a lot less.

When it comes to rushing the passer, Greenard has an explosive first step, better than the way Hunter approaches his rushes. He also has an impressive bull rush and explosive inside step, on par with Hunter. Overall, his bull-rush game and inside counter may be an improvement on Hunter because of that first step. However, when it comes to winning outside and overall pass-rush repertoire, Greenard falls short.

Greenard plays more like Everson Griffen, another great Vikings pass rusher. He has Griffen’s explosiveness and power even if he lacks Griffen’s deadly spin. Greenard is also stronger and more disciplined in run defense than Griffen was. On Minnesota’s defense, Greenard will likely be asked to do some things he doesn’t have much experience with, and the team is betting that he will take well to those tasks and eventually surpass the player Hunter will become as he ages.

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