To count down the days until Vikings rookies, quarterbacks and select veterans report to Mankato on July 23, we will reveal our ranking of the 17 most important Vikings players heading into the 2017 season. Look for the next player on our list every weekday morning at Access Vikings.
This list, created by Matt Vensel and Andrew Krammer, is not a ranking of the best players on the team, though sheer talent is obviously an essential factor. It is a ranking of the players whose upcoming season will have the biggest impact on the franchise, whether it’s in 2017 or beyond.
Coming in at No. 15 on our list is linebacker Eric Kendricks.
Mike Zimmer likes physically imposing players on defense.
Well Eric Kendricks has done just fine despite questions about his 6-foot frame in the draft two years ago. The speedy second-round pick has been a quick study as the Vikings leading tackler each of his two NFL seasons while converting to and earning the middle linebacker job in the Vikings’ 4-3 system.
Kendricks’ acceleration and instincts give the Vikings a rangy linebacker roving the middle of the field, critical in today’s game dominated by pass efficiency. He’s been especially impressive in coverage, whether tasked with sticking to a running back or tight end. His 10 pass deflections (one interception) tied for sixth among all NFL linebackers last season.
The Vikings will need Kendricks to continue his trajectory for a team with hopes of anchoring a Super Bowl run on the back of its defense. In the middle is this third-year linebacker, who also has latched on as a pass rusher often slipping past blockers when crowding the line in the double A-gap fronts with fellow linebacker Anthony Barr. His 6.5 sacks in the last two seasons lead Vikings linebackers.
He’s a versatile piece for Zimmer with speed and strength representative of the modern NFL linebacker alongside the likes of Bobby Wagner, Brandon Marshall and Luke Kuechly. There’s certainly an argument for Kendricks to be even higher on this list of importance, given how the Vikings are trying to shore up play against the run (16th, 4.2 ypc) this season.
The Vikings had discussed one day moving Kendricks to Chad Greenway’s outside role in the base defense, but decided to keep him in the middle. The front office instead added bulk to the defensive tackle spots this offseason. That means they’ll continue relying on Kendricks to be a hard-nosed run stopper in the middle, critical this year as the Vikings also focus on short-yardage situations. Minnesota allowed a touchdown on nearly 55 percent of opponent’s red-zone drives last season, ranking 15th in the NFL, according to Football Outsiders.
The middle of the Vikings defense will likely be a continued target for opposing offenses given how Xavier Rhodes has ascended and Trae Waynes has come along at cornerback. But when the Vikings face Chicago’s Jordan Howard or Green Bay’s Ty Montgomery, they have a worthy counterpunch in Kendricks.
The Star Tribune’s ranking of the 17 most important Vikings in 2017:
16. Pat Elflein, C/G