After three years with the Minnesota Vikings, Eric Kendricks signed a five-year, $50 million extension in 2018. At that time, the deal may have been appropriate for the up-and-coming linebacker. However, Kendricks is currently outplaying the money he was signed for based on how the market on linebackers has shifted in the NFL.
Earlier this week, the San Francisco 49ers signed All-Pro linebacker Fred Warner to a remunerative five-year extension worth $95 million, meaning he’ll be paid $19 million annually going forward. Additionally, Adam Schefter reported that Indianapolis Colts linebacker Darius Leonard is expected to be up next for an extension, a deal “north of $19 million.”
To put this in perspective, this is a list of the highest-paid linebackers in the NFL today:
10. Eric Kendricks: $10M
Guys like Matt Milano of the Buffalo Bills and Cory Littleton of the Las Vegas Raiders rank higher on the list than Kendricks, but Kendricks has outproduced all of them. Focusing on the last two seasons, Kendricks has been a force in coverage, with 17 pass breakups and a 91.7 cover grade, both ranking first in the NFL.
Recently, Pro Football Focus (PFF) was doing its yearly positional rankings, and they listed Kendricks third, right behind Bobby Wagner and Fred Warner. PFF had this to say about the Vikings star:
“Showing there is more than one way to get it done, Eric Kendricks played a more conventional college position than Warner but has been the other superstar linebacker in coverage over the past couple of years. Including the playoffs, Kendricks has 17 pass breakups and the highest PFF coverage grade among all linebackers (91.7) over the past two seasons.”
Further, Kendricks is arguably the most vital piece to the Vikings’ defense. Last year, according to Nick Olson, the Vikings’ defense had an EPA (expected points added) per play that ranked 17th best in the NFL when Eric Kendricks was healthy. When he wasn’t, the EPA per play dropped to a disastrous 30th.
Kendricks had a PFF coverage grade of 90.7 last year and did not allow a single touchdown, making him arguably the best cover linebacker in the NFL. While it hasn’t gotten there yet, this situation is reminiscent of the one that the Vikings were in with Danielle Hunter.
Minnesota’s front office has a pattern of extending players based on analytics that project his abilities in his prime, so they end up getting contracts done that look like bargains in a couple of years. This was the case with Hunter, who produced like a top-10 pass rusher but wasn’t even in the top-15 salaries for pass rushers.
Kendricks seems to be on a similar path right now. But while Hunter is just a 26-year-old pass rusher heading into his seventh NFL season, Kendricks is 29 years old, and most players regress in their 30s. Bobby Wagner is 31 years old and playing like an All-Pro, but he is an anomaly. It’s easier for a player to demand a new contract in his mid-20s. It’s a different story as he nears 30.
This is an example of when the contract strategy of salary-cap manager Rob Brzezinski, Rick Spielman, and the rest of the Vikings’ brass pays off. Luckily for Kendricks, the current regime is generally fair about the contracts that it gives out and is occasionally willing to make adjustments. There is little doubt that they wouldn’t take care of him financially, especially with the salary cap rising in the next few years.