Before the NFL game slowed down for Eric Kendricks, the Vikings needed the fleet-of-foot middle linebacker to slow his own roll.
Kendricks played like he drank too much coffee, coach Mike Zimmer says, overly eager to do his job. Not until Kendricks’ nerves settled did the Vikings’ leading tackler his first two seasons fully come into his own, commanding the Vikings’ front seven by relaying the play and tipping his teammates to the opponent’s formation and alignments.
The undersized (6 feet, 232 pounds) but mobile third-year pro became the valuable sideline-to-sideline defender who told his coach no, he didn’t want to make the prescribed move to outside linebacker this offseason because playing in the middle is where he can stop offenses on both sides of the field.
“It’s just based off preference,” Kendricks said. “Some linemen like playing guard.”
And some linebackers like making plays. So from the middle is where teammates hear Kendricks’ marching orders, loud barks not to be delivered too quickly like his off-field chatter in a Tommy gun cadence.
“If I’m not playing, I talk fast,” Kendricks explained, adding on the field “it’s a lot less words and I’m kind of focused.”
Kendricks, a second-round pick, doesn’t yet have any All-Pro honors or Pro Bowl jerseys hanging in his closet like many of his defensive locker mates. But he’ll be one of Minnesota’s key defenders Monday night against the Saints and running backs Mark Ingram, Adrian Peterson and Alvin Kamara.
Because he possesses a rare combination of instincts and athleticism, he’s a perfect fit for Zimmer’s pressure schemes predicated on fast defenders creating confusion.
The 25-year-old’s mental process also is improving, linebackers coach Adam Zimmer said, allowing Kendricks to know when to turn on the jets and when to let a play come to him.
“He gets better the more offenses he sees,” linebackers coach Adam Zimmer said. “He’s starting to become a little bit more vocal and a leader out there for us. Things are coming natural to him since he’s seen it before.
“The thing he has for him is he’s really instinctive and sometimes he can get to a spot faster than a lot of guys can.”
NFL talent evaluators questioned whether Kendricks could succeed as a professional middle linebacker. That’s where he played at UCLA in winning the 2014 Butkus Award winner, given annually to college football’s best linebacker. But could he hold up against interior offensive linemen who might outweigh him by 70 pounds?
Coaches say his quick read-and-react time is what allows Kendricks to shed blocks.
“He’s not getting engulfed and blocked as much as some of these guys that don’t have that intangible,” Adam Zimmer said. “That’s something you can’t really coach. You just have it when you’re born. That, his instincts and his intelligence and way he studies the game all make him who he is.”
Perhaps 20 years ago a player of Kendricks’ size would have struggled at middle linebacker. That’s what 61-year-old defensive guru Mike Zimmer thought until this offseason, when he still considered moving him outside to Chad Greenway’s vacated spot.
So he reviewed Kendricks’ 2016 tape, talked with him and came to a different conclusion.
“He didn’t really want to move, and I really didn’t want to move him,” Mike Zimmer said. “Kendricks played so well a year ago. He’s so comfortable doing that position.”
The NFL has changed, with coaches seeking smaller and faster defenders to counter spread offenses that put speed all over the field. Kendricks is a prime example of a modern-day linebacker, better known for meeting running backs at each sideline than smashing facemasks between the tackles.
Kendricks knows his strengths, too, which is why he wanted to stay in the middle.
“It allows me to get to a lot of plays on both sides of the ball,” Kendricks said.
That’s the expectation he’s set.