There was a brief period of time, after linebacker Eric Kendricks was drafted, when Vikings coaches referred to him as “Little Fella.”
The nickname, however short-lived, is the kind of thing that has long fueled Kendricks. It started when he was an overlooked recruit from Fresno, Calif., who had to redshirt at UCLA. The knock against him had always been that — at 6 feet — he was too short.
Kendricks couldn’t control his lack of height, but he has controlled how little it is now mentioned. He shed the nickname like he’s shed blockers for five straight Vikings seasons, especially during this standout campaign as he seeks his first Pro Bowl berth.
“I’ve stopped calling him that,” linebackers coach Adam Zimmer said, “because he plays like a Big Fella.”
Kendricks has been a big terror for offenses this season, taking away running games and passing outlets as the Vikings’ leading tackler for a fifth straight year. Despite individual and team production over his first four NFL seasons, Kendricks has never even been a Pro Bowl alternate.
“I want to earn the respect of the people who play and my teammates,” Kendricks said after a practice this week at the Vikings’ Eagan headquarters. “At UCLA, I put all these years together, but I never got first-team Pac-12, you know what I mean? I was never considered for that. It was kind of weird. I just felt like, ‘Yeah, I’ve just been an underdog my whole life.’ I’m just out to prove everybody wrong, honestly.”
On Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium, a high-powered Chiefs offense and running back LeSean McCoy are the next obstacles for the Vikings defense. Before every game, reserve linebacker Kentrell Brothers — also “undersized” at 6-foot-1 — said he gets in Kendricks’ ear with words that ring a certain way for players of their stature.
“Hey, you know what you do best — you get to the ball. Regardless of what people say, you get to the ball,” Brothers tells Kendricks. “That’s something he takes pride in. Whether you’re big or not, you can’t coach effort. He gives great effort every play, and he’s been playing lights out this year. Hopefully soon he gets the credit he deserves.”
Fit for today’s NFL
Since Kendricks was drafted by the Vikings in the second round (45th overall) in 2015, he hasn’t stopped moving. His ability to cover running backs sideline to sideline is required of modern NFL linebackers who need to thrive in pass coverage to stay on the field. It’s why the Vikings jumped at signing Kendricks to a five-year, $50 million extension in April.
But would he have played middle linebacker 20 years ago for coach Mike Zimmer?
“No, probably not, but that’s what the league is now,” Zimmer said. “There are a bunch of 6-foot, 6-1 linebackers. That’s kind of what the league has turned into. It’s hard to find big linebackers who can run in space with the way the game is played now.”
Kendricks has had little trouble keeping up this season. He leads all NFL linebackers with 23 run stops, according to Pro Football Focus, paired with a career-high 10 pass deflections in just eight games. His improved play is due, in part, to having two block-absorbing defensive tackles in Linval Joseph and Shamar Stephen — Kendricks called that “a linebacker’s dream.”
He’s been more reliable in coverage, too, with the experience to better understand when to break on passes from zone assignments, according to Adam Zimmer. He still takes chances, like when Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz rolled out on third down looking for a downfield option. Kendricks deflected the throw, but only after charging Wentz and vacating his zone and a possible open receiver.
“If you’re going to do that, you better make the play,” Adam Zimmer said. “Technically, he jumped out a little too early, but they have to play the game. You can’t micromanage and make them be robots.”
His playmaking has stoked competitive fires on the fifth-ranked Vikings defense.
“It’s risen my level of play,” linebacker Anthony Barr said.
Kendricks has long been the hype man of the Vikings defense. He’s known to scream in practices — “even more so this year” according to Brothers — to raise intensity when pace is dragging. He has a pregame ritual that involves sprinting out of the tunnel into an empty stadium before putting on pads “like a kid in a playground,” giving Adam Zimmer a weekly smile.
Where does the energy come from entering his 67th NFL start?
“It’s self-brewed,” Kendricks said. “Everybody has a role on the team. I feel like people can count on me to have a smile on my face and kind of be a little spastic at times. I like to get people going. I like to get into it. I don’t want to be wasting my time out here.”
Even Kendricks admits a main source of his motivation — being overlooked — is at risk, because of how well he’s played this season. However, he said he’s long been recognized in Minnesota.
“At car dealerships, especially,” Kendricks said with a laugh.
When he does have free time, Kendricks frequents luxury car dealerships and private collections. His love for cars, which started with Hot Wheels and remote control cars as a kid and continues today with car shows, video games and online research, is a growing passion Kendricks hopes to turn into a post-playing career in some fashion.
For now, he’s at home bouncing around car lots. There, too, his anonymity fades as he “makes friends” in the auto industry.
“Honestly, I’ve gone to just dealerships and not had any intention of buying a car or anything,” Kendricks said. “I’ve just, like, probably bothered everyone in there to show me whatever car was in there. What happens usually is I find someone in the building who likes cars as much as me, so they don’t mind showing me or taking a test drive.”
Kendricks wouldn’t mind becoming the sixth Pro Bowler from this Vikings defense, which is continuing the NFL’s second-longest active run as a top-10 scoring unit. This season (third at 16.5 points per game) would mark the fifth in a row for the Vikings, trailing only the Patriots (first, 7.6 points per game), going for an eighth straight year in the top 10.
The man in the middle all five years — Kendricks — said he’s still driven to prove his worth even as he starts to get his due.
“I’m getting more notoriety this year, or people are starting to take notice,” Kendricks said, “but I mean I feel like I pride myself on being consistent. These positions I’ve been in the games, I can’t deny that, but I feel like I have a lot more to give. I’m excited for the second half of the season, because I have to go out and prove myself again.”