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Eric Kendricks, a tackling machine who could get more for Vikings

Note: This is the third of four offseason snapshots looking at the peaks and valleys of key 2017 Vikings contributors. Part II: Dalvin Cook and Latavius Murray. Part I: Harrison Smith.

A basketball starting five used to require an array of talents from each position. Today’s courts populated with seven footers who shoot threes changes it a bit.

Football’s starting 11 inherently remains as such through defined positions requiring vastly different skills that, when paired together properly, form a good team. So that’s why the Vikings were able to take a decorated and undersized linebacker from UCLA and make him the center of the defense.

Eric Kendricks (6-0, 232 pounds) arrived in Minnesota a fast talker with fleet feet. He wasn’t the combine warrior like a Danielle Hunter in his same class. Kendricks’ best drill finish was fifth in the vertical, and his worst (21st in bench) didn’t shed concerns about his size. But he was a long-term fit when paired behind the 329-pound Linval Joseph and next to the 6-foot-5 Anthony Barr, even if it’s not how Mike Zimmer originally intended.

Kendricks was first brought into Winter Park to eventually take the spot of one of the franchise’s all-time best, Chad Greenway. Instead, he performed well enough in 13 games as a three-down middle linebacker to change that course. The Vikings signed outside linebacker Emmanuel Lamur, then drafted outside linebacker Ben Gedeon. And 314 combined tackles later, Kendricks led the defense during each of his three NFL seasons from the middle.

A linebacker for today’s game

Until late-season games from Alvin Kamara and Jonathan Stewart, the Vikings had forced opposing quarterbacks to beat them. Running backs also had a hard time serving as their QB’s outlet. With Kendricks often in coverage, the Vikings allowed just 490 receiving yards and a touchdown on 100 targets to running backs during the regular season.

Descriptors such as instinctual and intelligent were passed around by evaluators when Kendricks entered the 2015 NFL Draft. More tangibly, his fast feet were evident in a 4.14-second 20-yard shuttle at UCLA’s pro day that would’ve ranked fourth among all linebackers at the combine. Those traits combined make Kendricks a strong volume tackler and good matchup for the army of dual-threat RBs in the league.

Leader among them is Pittsburgh’s Le’Veon Bell, whose 61 broken tackles last season were third most among backs, according to Pro Football Focus. He had one of his quietest days of the season against the Vikings with 91 yards (four receiving) on 31 touches. Kendricks helped limit that damage through the air.

Below you’ll see two clips of Kendricks’ coverage on Bell. His speed allows the Vikings to be comfortable with him in a range of situations. Third clip: Kendricks lines up outside on Lions tight end Eric Ebron. Fourth clip: A shallow angle behind his defensive tackles allows Kendricks to beat Washington’s center to the edge.

At the door

Unlike a handful of his teammates, Kendricks has not yet been voted onto a Pro Bowl or All-Pro roster. It could be a matter of time. There’s also room for improvement.

While he’s hoarded tackles in Minnesota, Kendricks has been just outside of the league’s most efficient linebackers. He’s missed at least 10 tackles, according to PFF, in each of his three seasons, peaking last year with 17. Kendricks plays low. It’s one of his strengths in maintaining balance while leaping at jolting torsos. Sometimes he misses, evident in the video below.

The Vikings were about 75 percent a nickel defense, meaning Kendricks and Barr were mostly the only two linebackers on the field. Safeties, particularly Harrison Smith, are used often as a fill-in defender. But the defense can crack when Kendricks gets overpowered in a gap.

First clip: Kendricks is carried out by Pro Bowl guard Brandon Scherff. Second clip: The defensive tackle gets blocked out, putting Kendricks in a bad spot to recover on Isaiah Crowell’s 26-yard touchdown run. Third clip: Man coverage on Lions TE Eric Ebron, Kendricks gets cast aside on the miss. Fourth clip: He squares up on Lions RB Ameer Abdullah, but the ankle tackle misses.

Found a fit

Kendricks’ strengths as a quick-twitch linebacker fast to the ball has made for a strong three-year run behind Joseph. A defense with a lesser nose tackle might not have made it work as well. The Vikings also orchestrate run fits that move Kendricks around the perimeter of the defense, maximizing his speed unlike a traditional middle linebacker.

Coach after coach on conference calls throughout the season praise the gap discipline of the Vikings defense. Below you’ll see a 3-yard run by Le’Veon Bell, stalled as the D-line crashes down, Kendricks contains the edge and safety Andrew Sendejo fills in.

Second clip: On 1st-and-goal from the 6-yard line, Kendricks shifts to align outside of defensive end Everson Griffen. Smith and Barr fill in the middle for the successful run stop. Third clip: Defensive tackle Shamar Stephen gives Kendricks a little help with a hold to keep the Lions double team and open the hole. Fourth clip: And when opposing offenses decide to block DTs and LBs one-on-one, the Vikings typically win that fight up front.

Franchise tag window opens today; Vikings must make Keenum decision

The Vikings’ newly-assembled brain trust on offense hits the ground running. Coordinator John DeFilippo and senior assistant Todd Downing, hired 10 days apart this month, will help craft their new team’s approach to finding a starting quarterback.

One device is at the Vikings’ disposal as of Tuesday: the franchise/transition tag.

Starting Tuesday, NFL teams have a two-week window to prevent one of their pending free agents from hitting the open market with a one-year contract. The Vikings’ front office has recently been proactive in re-signing coveted players the summer before they reach this point. But they’re now in uncharted waters with perhaps the most unique quarterback situation in the NFL.

All three experienced quarterbacks are set to become free agents with two caveats: 1) Teddy Bridgewater’s contract may ‘toll,’ or roll into 2018, depending on whether Bridgewater and the NFLPA can prove he was medically able to play before Week 6. 2) An extension can be reached at anytime, or the tag can be used to keep a quarterback like the healthy Case Keenum.

The deadline to apply a franchise or transition tag is 3 p.m. on March 6.

The Vikings have never used the tag, which began in 1993, on a quarterback. Only twice has the organization slapped a one-year tender on a player, and not since Chad Greenway in 2011. Tight end Jim Kleinsasser was tagged in 2003.

Earlier this month, general manager Rick Spielman said “nothing has been decided” when asked if the tag was an option for any of his quarterbacks.

Keenum is the most likely candidate between he, Sam Bradford and Bridgewater, but at a hefty cost.

A breakout season surprised almost everybody as Keenum parlayed a one-year, $2 million journeyman deal with the Vikings into his eventual career-altering payday this spring. He won 13 games under center, including the franchise’s first playoff win since 2009 through the ‘Minneapolis Miracle’ against the Saints.

Keenum had a career year in nearly every statistical measure under the direction of Pat Shurmur, now the New York Giants head coach. His sixth NFL season saw career highs in completion percentage (67.6%), yardage (3,547), touchdowns (22) and passer rating (98.3). He also had five of the 10 best individual passer ratings of his NFL career.

Pinning him down right now would cost $21 or $23 million via a transition or franchise tag, according to former player agent Joel Corry who analyzes contracts for CBS Sports. If the Vikings go the quickest route to keep Keenum with a tag, he’d nearly quadruple his NFL career earnings overnight (when signed; teams can rescind tags until signed.) They would then have until July 16 to negotiate a long-term extension before the upcoming season.

Teams can place two kinds of franchise tags – exclusive and non-exclusive – on a player. The non-exclusive (more common) gives an agent the ability to negotiate with other teams while the current team gets right of first refusal or two first-round picks if the player is signed away. The exclusive tag (uncommon, slightly more expensive) prevents negotiations with other teams. Transition tags are the cheapest of the three options and don’t provide any compensation if a player is signed away.

That’s one option.

The Vikings hold a few more. The two sides could work out a long-term deal at any point before Keenum hits the open market March 14. Keenum could command a deal roughly in the three-year, $54 million range with the first year and change guaranteed, according to ESPN.com’s Mike Sando. The Vikings and Keenum will also have to consider 31 other potential bidders, who can all legally begin negotiations with the quarterback on March 12.

As much as a long-term quarterback solution is sought, the Vikings haven’t publicly bestowed that kind of confidence in Keenum. Head coach Mike Zimmer praised Keenum’s intestinal fortitude throughout the season. DeFilippo also stressed the need for an athletic quarterback this month during his introductory conference call with Twin Cities reporters.

The Vikings could also let Keenum test the market. A day after the Vikings’ NFC title game loss in Philadelphia, Keenum said he hadn’t discussed his future with Vikings brass. Free agency is a two-way street, so Keenum may leave and never look back. However, his relationships in Minnesota may be strong enough for him to allow the Vikings to match any potential offers he gets around the league.

Or the Vikings could let him walk. They’d then need to replace him with another one of their own free agents, others (Kirk Cousins, A.J. McCarron, Josh McCown) or the draft where they’re currently slotted at pick No. 30.

 

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