Brian Flores' Defense Embodies A Player the Vikings Might Cut

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Once you’ve watched Eric Kendricks emerge from the tunnel during player intros, it’s hard to forget what you’ve seen. Some players, like Za’Darius Smith or Jordan Hicks, pump up the crowd. Justin Jefferson often does his signature Griddy dance. Adam Thielen has emerged with the American flag. Kirk Cousins and some of the offensive linemen just sprint out of it.

But Kendricks emanates pure, unadulterated joy. He leaps jubilantly, his dark, curly hair flowing like waves in the Pacific ocean. He radiates a passion for the game in an almost childlike way. Kendricks both feeds off the crowd and injects energy into it. He plays a vicious game in a beautiful way. Like a sleek sports car, he’s high-powered and flashy. But he’s also capable of delivering a devastating collision.

Kendricks can make a one-handed catch like a receiver and make open-field hits like a safety. In 2021, he rode Ben Roethlisberger to the ground. His reaction after the game? Big Ben was his favorite player growing up because his tinted visor was “tight.” But Minnesota’s jubilant linebacker is on the wrong side of 30 and occupies 5% of the Vikings’ cap space next season. That’s on the low end of Minnesota’s core veteran players, but it’s still high enough that the front office will take a long, hard look at it. He’s not washed by any means. However, he looks plodding compared to Brian Asamoah and some of the Vikings’ other young players.

Brian Flores will have a hand in shaping the Vikings defense. He’ll have Kwesi Adofo-Mensah’s ear on free-agent signings, draft picks, and who they’ll retain from Mike Zimmer’s core. During his introductory press conference on Wednesday, reporters asked Flores what kind of players he wants. “I want guys who are having fun out there,” he said. “That there’s a joy as you watch them play. You guys can see it, anyone watching can see that there’s joy watching, that there’s camaraderie. That they’re fighting together.”

Specifically, he said he wants tough, smart, disciplined, and physical players. “I’m big on versatility,” he said, “guys being able to play multiple spots.” The difficult question here is how many of those guys are on the roster. Zimmer’s core is aging, and Adofo-Mensah’s first draft class was injury-riddled. Harrison Smith should benefit from Flores’ presence, especially when Ed Donatell hardly used him in the blitz game last year. So should Lewis Cine, if he recovers from injury.

“A lot of players that are here fit the bill,” Flores said. “Smart, tough, physical, guys who love to play, team-first. You need dirty-work guys. By that, I mean guys who are taking on double teams while somebody else makes the tackle or spilling the play so somebody else makes the tackle or batting a ball down. … Those guys who are team-first and selfless.

“We’re still going through it, I’m still in the early stages of getting to know this team, but I’m looking for guys like that. In a world where everyone wants to be the center of attention, those guys who want to do what’s best for the group. I think we have a lot of those types of guys on our roster already and I’m looking forward to working with them and putting them in the best positions to help the team win.”

That seems to bode well for Dalvin Tomlinson and Harrison Phillips. But what about Kendricks? In some ways, he does the small things that make a big difference. He has to fill gaps on the second level in case a running back breaks through the defensive line. Similarly, corners may hand off a receiver to him in the secondary. For most of his career, Kendricks excelled because of his versatility. He could slow down a running back, cover a receiver, and get after the quarterback. That’s exactly the kind of player that Flores is looking for. But now? He still offers some of that, but he’s not what he was at his peak.

Defensive coaches tend to love veteran players. Zimmer did to a fault, holding on to remnants of his elite 2017 defense long after many of his players had passed their prime. Xavier Rhodes was a lockdown corner until he wasn’t. The Vikings brought Mackensie Alexander and Everson Griffen back after they signed elsewhere. Similarly, Donatell frequently praised veterans like Patrick Peterson and Jordan Hicks last season, even though he vowed to work on player development.

Still, money talks, and Kendricks carries an $11.43 million cap hit next year. Rob Brzezinski can always make the money work, but there has to be a will to retain Kendricks. While Harrison Smith is the defense’s veteran leader, Kendricks is its soul. His passion and joy are infectious, but he’s a less versatile player than he was in his 20s. Which will matter more to Flores and the Vikings? We’ll know soon enough.

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