Where Does Eric Kendricks Rank Among the NFL's Elite Linebackers?

Photo Credit: Cary Edmondson (USA TODAY Sports)

One of the first things you notice about Eric Kendricks is how instinctive he is. His ability to not only correctly diagnose a play, but to be strong enough to make a tackle and still be quick enough to break up a pass on the other side of the field is not a skill that can be taught, nor is it easily found in the NFL. His versatility, consistency, and impact rivals that of fellow teammate Harrison Smith, which is why he’s one of my favorite players on this Minnesota Vikings defense. He’s among the select few who can single-handedly stop a drive on offense, regardless of what the down and distance is.

Kendricks was selected by the Vikings in the second round of the 2015 NFL Draft, Rick Spielman’s finest class. It included first-rounder Trae Waynes, who started five years in Minnesota before signing a three-year, $42 million deal with the Cincinnati Bengals last year; two-time Pro Bowler Danielle Hunter, who was drafted in the third round; and Stefon Diggs, who delivered the Minneapolis Miracle before demanding a trade and ultimately landing with the Buffalo Bills.

Kendricks has built an impressive resumé since entering the league. As a rookie, he led the team in tackles and was named to the Pro Football Writers of America’s 2015 NFL All-Rookie Team. In 2019, Kendricks earned a spot in the Pro Bowl, replacing Seattle Seahawks LB Bobby Wagner, and No. 54 was named first-team All-Pro that same year. After five consecutive years of leading the team in tackles, Kendricks’ season was cut short by a lingering calf injury, yet he still managed to rank second in total tackles among Vikings defenders.

It’s evident that Kendricks is an accomplished player, but how does he stack up against some of the league’s premier linebackers?

To find out, I compared stats from Pro Football Reference and visualize player grades from Pro Football Focus. For the sake of argument, I’ll be comparing the last three seasons of Eric Kendricks’ career to Bobby Wagner, Lavonte David, and Demario Davis. The reason I chose these players is that all three were drafted in 2012 and have each established themselves among the NFL’s best linebackers on a yearly basis.

Here’s a look at the data:

Totals Table
Tackles Fumbles Def Interceptions
Player From To AV G Solo Ast QBHits TFL Sk FF FR Yds TD Int Yds TD
1 Lavonte David 2018 2020 30 46 258 102 17 35 6.0 7 5 0 0 2 21 0
2 Demario Davis 2018 2020 36 48 234 106 32 32 13.0 2 1 0 0 1 1 0
3 Eric Kendricks 2018 2020 29 40 202 123 4 11 1.5 3 3 25 0 5 3 0
4 Bobby Wagner 2018 2020 44 47 251 184 23 20 7.0 3 3 16 0 2 104 1
Provided by View Stathead Tool Used
Generated 9/9/2021.

Looking at raw statistics, Lavonte David is the first name that really sticks out. He has the most solo tackles, tackles for loss, forced fumbles, and fumble recoveries. When it comes to affecting the quarterback, Demario Davis leads the group in QB hits and sacks. Bobby Wagner has the most assists on tackles and is the only player to have scored a touchdown within the last three seasons. Finally, Eric Kendricks leads the linebackers in interceptions with five.

Looking at a statsheet, you can tell which players have tallied the most tackles or interceptions, but it doesn’t provide much context on each player’s strengths and weaknesses. That’s where PFF grades can come in handy. Below, each player’s individual grades as a run defender, a pass rusher, and in coverage will be visualized with a bar graph. Their performances will then be compared to each other before overall PFF grades are shown.

Wagner and Davis were the most consistent linebackers against the run throughout the three-year timespan. David was good against the run, but not at the same level as Wagner. Kendricks wasn’t great in this area, failing to reach a run-defense grade of 70 in 2018 and 2020.

Wagner dominated this category, as he was the highest-graded pass-rushing LB from 2018 through 2020. Davis wasn’t too far behind, as he held steady for all three years. David and Kendricks were unimpressive, as each only exceeded a pass-rushing grade of 60 once from 2018-2020.

David has consistently been a great disruptor of the passing game; in all three years he finished with a 75 coverage grade or higher. Kendricks performed well in coverage these past two seasons but was unremarkable in 2018. Wagner and Davis were not consistent in coverage throughout the three-year time span and lagged behind David and Kendricks.

It’s clear that Wagner is the best of the bunch, as he was the highest-graded linebacker in 2018 and 2020. Davis and David were both relatively consistent in the three-year timespan. However, Davis performed well as a run defender and a pass rusher, whereas David stood out in coverage. Despite having high grades the last two seasons, Kendricks was the most inconsistent linebacker of the group. His stats are also inflated due to him performing insanely well in certain categories even though he was mediocre to bad in others.

Here’s how I would rank each linebacker’s performance over the last three years:

1. Bobby Wagner
2. Demario Davis
3. Lavonte David
4. Eric Kendricks

Wagner and Davis both performed at a high level as run defenders and pass rushers. However, Wagner is slightly better in coverage and his ceiling is higher than Davis’, which is why I have him ranked No. 1. Davis isn’t the flashiest player, but he’s more consistent than David and Kendricks, which is why he’s above them at No. 2. Kendricks and David seem pretty interchangeable. Both excelled in coverage and had down years in 2018, but David’s year wasn’t as bad, which puts him at No. 3, a touch above Kendricks.

The fact that Kendricks is thought of so highly across the league by players and pundits is something Vikings fans should be proud of. With the start of a new season on the horizon, it isn’t far-fetched to say that he can become the best at his position in due time.

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