Eric Kendricks Had Become the Soul Of the Vikings Defense

Photo Credit: Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

Eric Kendricks made waves in January 2022 when he spoke out about the Minnesota Vikings’ culture under Mike Zimmer. The Vikings fired Zimmer after Minnesota’s 31-17 win over the Chicago Bears, which capped an 8-9 season. In an exit interview the next day, Kendricks laid out what he felt creates a good culture.

A culture where communication is put at the forefront. No matter what your role is on the staff, you having a voice and being able to communicate things you think could facilitate wins. I think just having that voice, no matter how big your role is — it’s important to listen up and take each other’s opinions into account. I don’t think a fear-based organization is the way to go.

Other players, most notably Brian O’Neill, criticized Minnesota’s culture in Zimmer’s final year. But Kendricks’ critique was unique because he’s a defensive player. Harrison Smith has long been a Zimmer ally and credits the cantankerous coach for developing him into a Pro Bowl safety. Patrick Peterson made a last-ditch plea in Zimmer’s defense after the Week 17 loss in Green Bay, which functionally ended Minnesota’s season. But Kendricks went against the grain, which is why his words resonated.

However, Kendricks had found his voice earlier than that. The Star Tribune named Kendricks their Sportsperson of the Year in 2020, highlighting his community service. Kendricks regularly visited the Hennepin County Juvenile Detention Center. He worked with the Vikings’ social justice committee to help formerly incarcerated people successfully re-enter society. Kendricks also spoke out poignantly when Minneapolis police murdered George Floyd in 2020.

On the field, Kendricks played with unbridled joy. During player introductions, he would leap out of the tunnel, openly expressing his excitement to play. He was demonstrative after a tackle, sack, or game-changing interception. And Kendricks spoke a mile a minute at his locker or the podium postgame. His willingness to wear his heart on his sleeve endeared him to his teammates and legions of fans.

Cutting Kendricks made sense from a business standpoint. He had a relatively low dead cap number, and the Vikings cleared $9.5 million in cap space. At 31, he didn’t play at the same pace as his peak years. Brian Daboll and the New York Giants picked on him during the playoffs. But he was still one of Minnesota’s most intelligent players and could make a spectacular play. Kendricks will offer something to the next team he signs with; he just won’t be at the peak of his powers.

Still, by moving on from Kendricks, they sever one more tie to their spectacular 2015 draft class. Danielle Hunter remains in purple, but they traded Stefon Diggs in March 2020. Trae Waynes unceremoniously retired after an injury-plagued run in Cincinnati. MyCole Pruitt found a place in the league after a short stint in Minnesota. Gone are the days of Anthony Barr and Kendricks, former UCLA teammates, roaming the middle of the Vikings defense. 2017 feels like it was ages ago.

Perhaps the most ironic part of all of this is that Kendricks had a hand in changing the culture in Minnesota. After describing the Zimmer regime as “fear-based,” ownership consulted Kendricks during their coaching search. They landed on Kevin O’Connell, who made it clear from his introductory press conference that he would prioritize communication. He and Kwesi Adofo-Mensah talked about collaboration between management, coaches, and the players, and they largely delivered in their first year. At the NFL Combine, players gave the Vikings straight-As for team culture, encompassing everything from nutrition and training staff to how the team treated their families.

“I’m real excited about the staff,” Kendricks told the Pioneer Press in May. “Everybody’s been on board, everybody’s been communicating very well. … We have this amazing opportunity ahead of us again. … Whatever happened last year is in the past, and we have to move forward. We can learn from a lot of things, but we also have to adapt and change with the new year.”

“From Day 1, I’ve been so impressed by Eric and just his impact on our team,” O’Connell told the Pioneer Press. “His impact as a leader, part of our leadership group that we have here, which I’m very, very fortunate in my first job as a head coach to have such a good group.”

Now he’s gone. Kendricks’s legacy will probably be his work in the community and the memories he created for fans. It’s hard not to feel that he touched the lives of many young people in Minnesota, whether during his volunteer work or with his play on the field. But he also helped shape the Vikings’ culture, which was due for an overhaul. While he won’t be picking off passes or sacking the quarterback in purple next year, he’ll indirectly affect the players who benefitted from last season’s organizational makeover.

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