Vikings coach Mike Zimmer was asked this week where he’d rank intelligence in the pecking order of picking players.
He gave a smart answer that had to disappoint not-so-smart players seeking NFL employment based on brawn.
“High,” Zimmer said. “We want intelligent players. Obviously, good players. But I think if it comes down to it and one guy is not smart and one guy is, we’ll probably go with the smart guy.”
Now, if only there were a fool-proof way for Zimmer and his peers to separate football’s nitwitted from its quick-witted.
It’s not easy, Zimmer said.
Like a lot of teams, the Vikings have the standard psychological tests and questions they ask college players before the draft. But Zimmer often goes old-school grease board and gut instincts during his part of evaluating the noggin.
“I only talked to the Vikings one time before the draft,” said middle linebacker Eric Kendricks, a second-round pick in 2015. “It was a 15-minute meeting during the combine. They just put me on the board.”
Kendricks was told to design UCLA’s favorite plays.
“I drew up a play to a basic formation,” Kendricks said. “Then [Zimmer] started moving guys around and asking me what everyone was supposed to do when there’s motion, a back out of the backfield, things like that. He wanted to know if I knew what everybody else was supposed to be doing.”
Zimmer calls it throwing “curveballs at them” to see if they’re able to understand entire concepts or just their assignment within that concept.
“I thought it went pretty smooth,” Kendricks said. “I don’t want to say it was one of the simpler interviews, but they just wanted to see my football IQ.
‘‘A lot of other teams did a lot of weird things trying to psyche me out. Like putting doubt on me to see how I’d react.”
The Vikings are one of the better teams in the league in large part because they have smart players.
Offensively, if newcomer Kirk Cousins is as smart as advertised, he’ll click with receivers Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs, who break defenses with savvy route running as much as speed and ball skills.
Defensively, the high football IQ is evident at all three levels, from the front four to Kendricks and Anthony Barr to a secondary that includes first-team All-Pros Xavier Rhodes and Harrison Smith, and a soon-to-be-40-year-old nickel corner Terence Newman.
Ten starters return from the defense that led the league last year in points, yards and third-down conversions allowed. Kendricks was asked which brain in this veteran-laden group ranks No. 1 in processing information on the field.
“It depends on what we’re looking for,” Kendricks said. “If it’s something with the line, the D-line are pretty good at communicating that. Splits and things, the DBs are great with that.
“The thing about our team is everyone is very intelligent in terms of knowing what’s going on everywhere. So there’s a lot of dialogue that’s happening at all times.”
Kendricks said it wasn’t until near the end of his rookie season that he felt comfortable in Zimmer’s defense.
“But now, we’re so comfortable communicating with each other, it’s second nature,” Kendricks said. “If it’s something you have to blurt out, you blurt it out. But if it’s something you can be more low-key about, you can alert somebody on the low.”
Kendricks is a fast middle linebacker. Being a smart player can make him even faster because “there are so many tips you can get pre-snap that if you recognize it, you can help the team out.”
However, part of being smart is knowing that the opposition has spent a week working on ways to outsmart even smart players.
“If there’s something I know for sure is going to happen, I might cheat to it,” Kendricks said. “But cheating also will get you hurt sometimes because the other team game plans, too. You can’t always be guessing. In this game, you need to be smart and know what everyone’s doing.”