Eric Kendricks' Release Is Only the Beginning

Photo Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Some people believe that March is one of the greatest months on the sports calendar. It has the state hockey tournament, March Madness and enough 35-degree days to give you just enough hope that Minnesota won’t be a frozen hellscape forever.

But for me, it’s WrestleMania binge-watching season.

For 39 years, WWE has provided plenty of moments for me to go back and re-live like an overgrown child. But going through this year’s guilty pleasure, the WrestleMania XXIV match between Ric Flair and Shawn Michaels reminded me of the current state of the Minnesota Vikings and Eric Kendricks‘ release.

In the months leading up to the match, Flair was given an ultimatum that he must continue winning or be forced to retire. Flair fought off retirement for a while, but at 64 years old, he wasn’t at the same level that helped him win 16 world championships.

The storyline ended at WrestleMania, where Flair faced Michaels in another “career-threatening” match. Flair fought valiantly, but the younger and stronger Michaels had gained the upper hand. There were several moments where Michaels could have ended the match with his finisher, “Sweet Chin Music,” but he hesitated out of respect and admiration for his opponent.

Michaels’ hesitation put him in his own threatening situation until he called for Sweet Chin Music one last time. Flair struggled to get up and demanded that Michaels continued to fight, but the end had arrived.

Michaels looked somberly at his opponent and mouthed the words “I’m sorry. I love you” before one swift kick ended the career of the Nature Boy.

At this point, you’re probably asking what the hell this has to do with the Vikings? But with the task of building for the future, Kwesi Adofo-Mensah could re-enact this scene with several players who have become pillars of the franchise.

Kendricks was the first domino to fall as he was released on Monday morning. A second-round pick in the vaunted 2015 draft class, Kendricks became one of the pillars of Mike Zimmer’s defense as a sideline-to-sideline missile at linebacker. His 579 solo tackles ranks eighth in franchise history and he was an All-Pro and Pro Bowl selection during the 2019 season.

Kendricks’s legacy was even stronger off the field. He became one of the team’s leaders in the social justice movement, donating $250,000 months after the murder of George Floyd. He also became an advocate for mental health and was the Vikings’ nominee for the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award in 2020.

But on the field, Kendricks had become older and slower. He remained one of the leaders in the locker room, but he wasn’t playing at the same level that had made him one of the best linebackers in the NFL. After posting a career-high PFF grade of 90.1 in 2019, Kendricks slipped to 82.6 in 2020 and all the way down to 59.2 in 2021.

While Kendricks’s grade went back up to 60.1 last season, he couldn’t keep up with some of the faster, stronger players in the league. During a playoff loss to the New York Giants, Kendricks routinely lagged behind Saquon Barkley. He did his best to catch him, but often was unable to do so.

In a perfect world, the Vikings would love to keep a player like Kendricks around. But in a league with a salary cap, teams usually move on from players in the twilight of their careers in favor of younger, cheaper replacements.

The story could play out again at the running back position where Dalvin Cook has made himself one of the faces of the franchise. His play in 2020 brought the Vikings back into playoff contention after a 1-5 start. Furthermore, his resilience to bounce back from a torn ACL in 2017 and a hamstring issue in 2018 gives him an aurora of likeability.

Unfortunately, running back is a position where teams are looking to get big production for a low cost. When Kevin O’Connell was asked about the Vikings’ offense at the NFL Scouting Combine, he stressed the importance to gain consistency from the running game. The Athletic’s Alec Lewis noted that the Jacksonville Jaguars were the only other team that had run for no gain or negative yards on first down, which wasn’t helped by Cook’s 48 percent success rate.

Cook is one of three running backs in Vikings history (Adrian Peterson, Robert Smith) to run for 1,000 yards in four straight seasons. However, his $14.1 million cap hit might signal the end for a 28-year-old running back who is still one of the foundational pieces of the locker room.

These are nothing compared to what could be the saddest goodbye of all – Adam Thielen.

If a Vikings fan were to create an origin story for their favorite player, they would probably choose Thielen’s. You’ve probably heard he’s from Detroit Lakes. You’ve probably heard he went to Minnesota State Mankato. Knowing these two facts is almost like the Pledge of Allegiance for Vikings fans, but like Kendricks and Cook, time comes for all.

Thielen hasn’t posted a 1,000-yard season since 2018 and averaged a career-low 1.08 yards per route run last season. His decline in production could be attributed to the addition of T.J. Hockenson. However, he also struggled with an average of 2.7 yards of separation per route run according to Next Gen Stats.

Even if Thielen isn’t getting the opportunities, his numbers and a combination of lower-body injuries suggest his best play is behind him. With a cap hit of just under $20 million, Vikings fans could find themselves like Michaels – standing in the corner realizing what they had to do.

A departure from the Vikings doesn’t signal the end of their careers, even Flair wrestled “one last match” at age 73 last summer. But it’s still a low point for fans who grew up watching Kendricks and whomever else may be sent packing this summer.

It won’t be easy. It won’t be fun. But it’s the right move to make if the Vikings want a better future.

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Photo Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

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