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.