Eric Kendricks wasn’t given official credit for the first forced fumble in Los Angeles, where he prevented Chargers running back Austin Ekeler from recovering Philip Rivers’ fumble, allowing Ifeadi Odenigbo to scoop and score from 56 yards away.
Sometime afterward, cornerback Mike Hughes sought sideline advice on how to break up passes between the hands like Kendricks, who either already or was about to jar loose another ball from Chargers tight end Hunter Henry in the fourth quarter.
“I’ve never seen a linebacker cover as good as he does,” Hughes said outside the visiting locker room at Dignity Health Sports Park. “I actually asked him [Sunday] a few tips on how to play through the hands and get the ball out, because he does a really good job of doing that.”
Kendricks’ first All-Pro campaign set a new bar for the fifth-year linebacker, unquestionably the most dominant at his level of the Vikings defense.
Below, we deliver 2019 grades for Vikings linebackers and set up the outlook for 2020.
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Pending free agents
LB Eric Wilson (restricted)
LB Kentrell Brothers
Under contract through (+ 2020 cap hit)
2020: LB Ben Gedeon ($893K)
2022: LB Cameron Smith ($585K)
2023: LB Anthony Barr ($12.7M), LB Eric Kendricks ($10M)
Grades are based on a 1-to-5 scale, with ‘5’ marking excellence, ‘4’ for above-average, ‘3’ for average, ‘2’ for below-average and ‘1’ for failure to perform. Players that did not accrue a season (weren’t on the active roster for at least six weeks) or played in five games or fewer are not graded. Below are individual grades, based on game and practice observations, weekly film reviews and interviews with coaches for six linebackers who finished the season on the Vikings’ active roster, injured reserve or practice squad. Unofficial NFL stats, such as QB pressures, missed tackles and targeted passes, are compiled by ProFootballFocus.com.
LB Eric Kendricks (4.5) — As modern NFL offenses stress defenses with motion and misdirection, Kendrick solved many of those problems by seemingly being everywhere at once. Illustrated best when he cut off Alvin Kamara’s jet motion on third-and-1 in the NFC wild-card playoff win in New Orleans, leading to a tackle for a loss by Jaleel Johnson. Put his name among the NFL’s best in his first All-Pro season with a career-high in run stops (35), pass deflections (12) and forced fumbles (2). Made first Pro Bowl as an alternate. Eight of Kendricks’ 12 deflected passes came on third or fourth downs, including a game-winning, diving deflection of an out-breaking throw to Ezekiel Elliott on fourth down in Dallas. Matches speed with proper angles to cover escaping running backs from Aaron Jones to Austin Ekeler, including tricky wheel routes. Showed impeccable feel to track the ball in the air and time contact for pass breakup, including a deep ball to Ekeler in the Week 15 win at the Chargers. Miles Sanders got him for a 32-yard touchdown in the Vikings’ Week 6 win over the Eagles. Predicted success in training camp when calling his situation a “linebacker’s dream,” referring to playing behind Linval Joseph and Shamar Stephen as block-eating defensive tackles. Nearly half of Kendricks’ 35 run stops (sixth among NFL linebackers) came in September, including 15 against the Packers, Raiders and Bears.
Played 962 snaps [86.7%]. One of eight Vikings to eclipse 1,000 snaps, including 65 on special teams. Not penalized. Had some trouble with Rashaad Penny in Week 13 loss in Seattle; outrun on a 10-yard sweep, among others, during the Seahawks’ 218-yard rushing night. Ironically, one of his best games, the Week 15 win in Los Angeles, was the last before he was snubbed from the initial Pro Bowl roster. Recovered two fumbles in the Week 16 loss to Green Bay. Suffered a right quad injury during second recovery; missed second half of that loss. Jimmy Garoppolo tried to throw over him twice in NFC Divisional playoff loss, resulting in an interception and near interception broken up by George Kittle. Led the team in tackles for a fifth straight season, but also tied for team-worst 12 missed tackles, including two on 49ers running backs.
LB Anthony Barr (3.5) — Reneged verbal agreement to sign with the New York Jets last spring and left money on the table to re-sign with the Vikings on a five-year, $67.5 million extension. Roles expanded in sixth NFL season. Paired with Danielle Hunter as bookends of the Vikings’ “diamond” package, which is a throwback to Mike Zimmer’s 3-4 roots in Dallas deploying Hunter and Barr as stand-up outside linebackers, of sorts. Cohesion on display when Barr slyly dropped from stack (4-3) linebacker onto the edge before sacking Matt Ryan in the season’s first defensive snap. Forceful run defender who tackled as well as ever while Vikings surrendered just eight rushing touchdowns — second fewest in the NFL. Career-high 30 run stops came as Barr had a career-low four missed tackles during the regular season. Fell apart in the playoffs with five missed tackles in two games. Highlights were fewer. Fell from 2018’s most effective blitzing linebacker to 32nd, despite Vikings again ranking top 5 in sacks. Splashed in Week 5 win at Giants with diving interception off Daniel Jones, Barr’s first in four years, and his first safety while knifing between right guard Kevin Zeitler and center Jon Halapio.
Played 944 snaps [85.1%]. One of eight Vikings to eclipse 1,000 snaps, including 64 on special teams. Sidelined during Week 3 win vs. Oakland due to groin injury. Penalized four times. Flagged for roughing Matthew Stafford in the Week 7 win at Detroit. Fined $21,056 by the NFL for that hit. At his best as a downhill wrecking ball. Barr delivered the fined hit as a spy, a key role maintained in critical situations allowing him to stay on the attack — like when he delivered a second-down hit to Russell Wilson in the red zone. Limited as a coverage linebacker, where he allowed touchdowns to running backs Jamaal Williams and Tarik Cohen in division losses at Green Bay and Chicago. Four pass deflections. Made excellent read to blow up an Alvin Kamara screen attempt with 11 seconds left in regulation of the NFC wild-card playoff win in New Orleans.
LB Eric Wilson (3.0) — Career-high six starts in third NFL season, beginning with a bang. Blocked punt in first quarter of Week 1 win vs. Falcons. Top reserve appearing in 13 games for injured starters, including the last eight games for Ben Gedeon. Played 383 snaps [34.5%]. Penalized once for jumping early on punt return team, giving Broncos a first down and eventual field goal in Week 11 comeback win. Played every snap in two games against the Raiders and Bears (Week 17). High-energy linebacker flashing growth as a playmaker, including a sack and run stop in a three-play span during the Week 4 loss in Chicago. Coaches compare his learning curve to Kendricks, and Wilson is not yet at the stage where he’s consistently anticipating blocks and play designs (and taking appropriate angles) like his All-Pro teammate. Remains without a pass deflection in 719 career defensive snaps. Overly eager, out of position on Chris Carson’s 25-yard run in Week 13 loss at Seattle. Reliable, if unspectacular, and typically lives up to high standard of being in the right place. Among Vikings’ top 10 tacklers, only Linval Joseph and Danielle Hunter had fewer misses than Wilson (5). Core special teams player, ranking second with 280 special teams snaps [65.7%]. Pending restricted free agent.
LB Ben Gedeon (2.0) — Two-down linebacker continuing weak-side role in the Vikings’ 4-3 front. Run-stopping specialist dealt with brunt of job, suffering two concussions. Second brain injury against Broncos in Week 11 ended season on injured reserve. “Ben loves to play the game. … He might have pushed it a little too far,” head coach Mike Zimmer said Dec. 5, in returning from first concussion after a two-game absence. Played 102 snaps [9.2%] in eight games. Missed Week 2 loss at Green Bay due to groin injury. Not penalized. Credited with 11 tackles (none for a loss), four run stops and no missed tackles. Entering final year of rookie contract.
LB Kentrell Brothers (2.0) — Won preseason/camp competition against younger linebackers to maintain roles as a reserve and mainstay on coverage/return teams. Saw mop-up duty in wins against Raiders, Lions and Chargers. First extended defensive snaps after Barr and Kendricks were sidelined in Week 16 loss vs. Green Bay. Missed one tackle — on Aaron Jones’ 56-yard touchdown run in that loss. Played 111 snaps [10%]. Not penalized. Core special teams player ranking fourth on team in coverage tackles (7). Played 222 special teams snaps [52.1%]. Pending free agent.
LB Cameron Smith (N/A) — Drafted in the fifth round (162nd overall) out of USC, Smith was the earliest-selected rookie to miss the 53-man roster after the preseason. Twice promoted from the practice squad. Made NFL debut at end of Week 6 win vs. Eagles. Remained on the active roster for final seven games after Ben Gedeon’s second concussion in Week 11. Played 33 snaps [3%], including season-high 23 snaps in season finale vs. Bears. Not penalized. Maintained small role on punt return team in playoffs.