Let’s take a walk down memory lane.
It’s 2019. Defensive guru Mike Zimmer has the Minnesota Vikings’ defense leading the way for an impressive season, finishing sixth in scoring defense. The Vikings would end the year with a 10-6 record in the regular season and an upset overtime wild card victory against the hated New Orleans Saints in the Superdome. (We’ll choose to forget what happened the following week against San Francisco.)
It was a great defense with a lot of great players. But All-Pro linebacker Eric Kendricks was undeniably one of the most crucial.
Kendricks had his best year by far in 2019, finishing as PFF’s highest-graded linebacker and highest-graded coverage player among linebackers. The All-Pro brought a perfect blend of speed, explosion, coverage skills, and tackling to the heart of the Minnesota defense in 2019. The 2019 defense was a cocktail of talented players playing at their peak, but Kendricks was the straw that stirred the drink.
However, if we compare Kendricks’ 2019 performance to his play only two years later, things have fallen off a bit.
Kendricks’ 2021 grade by PFF ranks him 37th among all linebackers. His completion percentage allowed took a big step back from his All-Pro form (53% in 2019, 74% in 2021), and his grade against the run was his worst ever, with a disappointing 42.9 score on run defense.
Those numbers paint a picture of a player who has lost a step. His speed and ability to cover space were integral to his game. As he enters his age-30 season, perhaps he’s not quite the 4.61 athlete he was coming out of UCLA. And without that exceptional burst to knife through opposing offenses, perhaps his smaller size is finally catching up with him. Maybe he’s getting bottled up by blockers in the running game.
That would be the pessimist’s case against Kendricks, which may hold merit. Perhaps he is another example of an aging veteran past his prime eating up too much salary cap in 2022.
But the off-season is the time for reckless optimism. Save that sobering cynical attitude for the regular season, when the football gods inevitably punish us for being Vikings fans again.
Instead, what kind of new life could this new coaching staff inject into Kendricks’ game? What if Ed Donatell is just the guy to help get his groove back?
Let’s start with some good old-fashioned excuse-making.
The Vikings’ defense was a hot mess in 2021. The secondary played awful, the defensive line got pushed around, and the play-calling was as anxious as an acne-covered teen on their first date. And take it from my personal experience, the result isn’t pretty.
So is it fair to evaluate Kendricks coming off such a tumultuous season?
Reuniting Danielle Hunter and Everson Griffen was supposed to be promising, but it only materialized with mixed results and for only six of 17 games due to injuries. The Vikings tabbed Michael Pierce and Dalvin Tomlinson as anchors of the defensive interior, but Pierce only appeared in eight games in his first active season in Minnesota.
The mounting injuries forced undersized or underdeveloped players into the starting lineup up front. Guys like D.J. Wonnum and Armon Watts gave their best effort, but they simply couldn’t match the production of the stars they replaced.
It spelled disaster for a player like Kendricks in the running game, as his game depends on using his speed to burst through open gaps at the ball carrier.
The lack of pass rush from the defensive line also impacted Kendricks on passing downs. Lack of pressure meant he was asked to cover for longer. Zimmer also asked Kendricks to blitz at a higher rate than ever as he desperately attempted to generate pressure on the quarterback.
With all these factors in play, the drop-off in 2021 is only natural. And while some of this may also be due to an inevitable decline in Kendricks’ play, it’s also abundantly clear he was not placed in a situation to succeed.
Kendricks almost certainly agrees. He’s been fairly outspoken with his criticisms of the previous staff since the beginning of the offseason.
What can we expect from Kendricks in the Donatell defense?
If the “competitive rebuild” Minnesota is attempting is going to work, Eric Kendricks is a prime example of the kind of player this coaching staff must revitalize.
Donatell has spoken highly of Kendricks. He’s boasted about Kendricks’ ability to play in space.
“In today’s ball right now, there’s so much space. And everybody’s linebackers have gotta be able to run,” Donatell said. “To have these guys that can run — Eric — it really helps.”
To be clear, Kendricks is not in the mold of your traditional 3-4 inside linebacker. He’s about 3” shorter and 20 lbs. lighter than is customary at that position. So his best fit in the new scheme may mean shifting into a different role than the one he played under Zimmer. Kendricks may rotate outside rather than stay put in the middle of the defense.
Luckily, Donatell embraces the creative opportunity. The hybrid defense he’s constructing in Minnesota will be built around maximizing the skillset of players like Kendricks.
“Every time you put a defense together, it’s different,” Donatell said. “Where do you find a linebacker as experienced as [Eric] Kendricks and his movement and his balance? He’s got a natural feel for time, distances, and space — where do you find that?”
Kendricks is quoted saying the new defense is built to give him increased flexibility and opportunities to make plays on the fly. That should lead to increased production in 2022.
“It’s a little more ambiguous at times,” he said. “It allows me to make decisions on the run, make plays, run around really. I like it.”
And perhaps more important than the changes to the “X’s and O’s,” Minnesota upgraded the “Jimmys and Joes” in front of Kendricks this offseason.
Harrison Phillips is a tough veteran who is excellent in the run game. Dalvin Tomlinson and Danielle Hunter are back and expecting a return to form. And former Packer Za’Darius Smith is an exciting addition to the front seven. He should provide a menacing presence on the edges opposite Hunter.
Minnesota’s revamped defensive line should give fans plenty of hope that they are putting Kendricks in a position to thrive. He’ll have clear alleys to chase and tackle like we’ve been accustomed to seeing.
Kendricks is a prime example of the type of veteran that this new staff evaluated and saw enough potential left to continue investing in under the new regime. They may view Kendricks as the victim of a difficult situation who can succeed with better coaching and surrounding talent.
Out of all the veterans they’ve hitched their wagon to, Kendricks may be the safest bet. With his body of work and track record of excellence not far in the rear view, he’s a prime bounce-back candidate if this new regime can get it right.
This time next year, we could be looking back on Kendricks’ down season in 2021 as an anomaly rather than an indicator of what’s to come.