The Vikings ties to UCLA have run deep in recent years with their drafting of linebackers Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr, and also in their front office with former UCLA defensive back George Paton working as their assistant general manager.
And now that the Vikings have signed Kendricks to a five-year, $50 million contract with $25 million guaranteed, the word is that Barr, Kendricks’ former UCLA teammate, might be their next target to sign before he hits unrestricted free agency next season.
Barr is currently due $12.3 million this season, and that’s a good reason why the Vikings might look to get him extended. They could actually lower their cap hit in 2018 if they were to work out a contract like the one they just did for Kendricks, who will make $10 million per season from 2019 to 2023.
One person who has a great understanding of the dynamics that Kendricks and Barr bring to a defense is former UCLA coach Jim Mora, who coached them both there.
He talked with Vikings.com last week about how having Barr and Kendricks playing together helps coach Mike Zimmer produce the best defense in the NFL.
“I think he probably enjoys every minute of it,” Mora said of Zimmer. “They’re two young men, men now, that come to the facility every day prepared to do their best, to do good work, to take good notes, to study, to go out and have great practices, to demonstrate leadership and a great attitude.
“They are two of the finest I have ever been fortunate enough to coach, and you see it reflected in their play. When you listen to the way they talk, how they present themselves to the public, they are always doing it the right way. I can only imagine that as much joy as I got out of coaching those guys and appreciated their influence on others around them, I would hope it’s the same in Minnesota.”
Succeeded at UCLA
Kendricks and Barr played together at UCLA from 2011-13, but Barr actually started his career on offense before Mora and his staff moved him to linebacker when Mora took over as head coach in 2012.
The two players were on the same defensive unit in 2012 and 2013.
In 2012 Barr tallied 83 tackles and 13½ sacks while Kendricks had 149 tackles, two sacks and an interception.
The following season Barr notched 65 tackles and 10 sacks while Kendricks had 106 tackles, two sacks and an interception.
Mora talked about the benefit of having two players with that kind of history of playing together.
“Not only did they play together but they were the best of friends in college, and they remain the best of friends now. They spend an inordinate amount of time together. They’re like brothers,” Mora said. “I think there is a dynamic between them and some things that can go unspoken. They work out together. There’s things they talk about that I think probably help them through good times, tough times.
“And then on the field I believe there is just a connectivity between them that helps them both excel. I think they also push each other. It’s very unique and very powerful. They’re just going to get better and better. They’re just starting their careers.”
With the Vikings, the two players have been instrumental in getting the defense to a No. 1 ranking in 2017. Last year Kendricks led the team with 113 tackles while Barr finished fourth with 75.
Mora said Zimmer and his staff have been extremely smart in keeping their defensive unit together so that they can build the kind of chemistry that Barr and Kendricks have had for years.
“They’re very fundamentally sound, they play well together, there’s a synergy amongst those 11 on the field on every single down,” he said. “They tackle well. They play hard. They run to the ball. They never look confused. They’re able to attack with pressure when they need to, and it’s always very sound pressure.
“But there is a level of confidence that they play with that I think is born in the fact that they’re so fundamentally sound, they work on the details, they’ve mastered the details and they understand how each of them fit in each particular defense.”
Yes, there is no doubt that while many people thought the Vikings were going to be in a tough spot with their salary cap after signing Kirk Cousins to a three-year, $84 million deal, the front office and the coaching staff continue to find ways to keep this core group together.
Coyle talks basketball
With less than a year before U.S. Bank Stadium will host the Final Four, Gophers athletic director Mark Coyle said the university is looking at several ways to get a major nonconference game there for the Gophers this season.
“We’re working with the U.S. Bank Stadium and those people, who have been great to us, Kate Mortenson [the president and CEO for the Minneapolis Final Four organizing committee] and the Final Four people, and we’ll be close to making an announcement on that. Coach [Richard] Pitino has been great about scheduling the right opponent.
“You know the timing, if you recall, we’re going to go to a 20-game basketball schedule for Big Ten play now, so we will have two Big Ten games in early December like we had this past year, and also we’ll have that nonconference game we’re hoping will be at U.S. Bank Stadium. We’re confident that will happen, and we’ll get that announced soon. It’ll be an opponent that people get excited about and an opponent that will help our program compete at the highest level. We look forward to that down there.”
On another topic, Coyle talked about his major hire of former Gophers and current Lynx standout Lindsay Whalen to become their head women’s basketball coach.
Coyle said he is confident Whalen’s decision to continue playing for the Lynx, which will provide a large national platform for the university, will work as a recruiting tool.
“There is no doubt, we joked with Lindsay when we gave her the job that one requirement was she was going to have to get a tattoo of the [Gophers logo] on her shoulder and a phone number to our department on the other arm,” Coyle said. “Every time she is on national TV this summer, what are they going to talk about? The University of Minnesota women’s basketball coach Lindsay Whalen. We’re very excited about that. I do want to point out that Lindsay was quick to point out that she wears sleeves.”