On the day they welcomed players back into their building for the start of offseason workouts, the Vikings ushered one of their linebackers into a new tax bracket.
The team signed linebacker Eric Kendricks to a five-year contract extension, locking up the first of four significant players scheduled to hit free agency after the 2018 season.
Kendricks will make $50 million over the life of the five-year deal, according to a league source, with $25 million of that money guaranteed. Only three inside linebackers — the Panthers’ Luke Kuechly, the Seahawks’ Bobby Wagner and Giants’ Alec Ogletree — are currently playing on deals worth more than the $10 million Kendricks would average annually over the length of his new deal.
“He’s a leader in the defense; he’s a leader in our locker room,” General Manager Rick Spielman said. “Hopefully we’ll be able to continue to add players like Eric as we continue to build this roster and move forward.”
His contract, which came one month and one day after the team made Kirk Cousins the NFL’s highest-paid player, means it will retain the services of its middle linebacker for the rest of his prime, and indicates the team will remain aggressive in securing its young players.
“The hype is real,” Kendricks said on a conference call. “Everybody’s super excited; we’re always excited to play football here. The locker room, I think it’s the best locker room I’ve ever been in. We’ve got the best defense I’ve ever been on. With the addition of Kirk Cousins, it’s not going to hurt us by any means at all.”
Linebacker Anthony Barr, wide receiver Stefon Diggs and defensive end Danielle Hunter are all scheduled to hit free agency after the season, and it stands to reason the Vikings — who signed Kendricks after finishing extensions with cornerback Xavier Rhodes, defensive end Everson Griffen and defensive tackle Linval Joseph last summer — will try to get at least one more player signed before the start of the 2018 season. The team had $17.8 million in cap space remaining for the 2018 league year as of Monday.
Kendricks, the Vikings’ second-round pick in 2015, posted 113 combined tackles last season, with a sack and one interception (which he returned 31 yards for a touchdown). He started all 16 games at middle linebacker for the first time in his career in 2017, a year after he played 15 of the team’s 16 games and made 109 tackles to go with a 77-yard interception return for a touchdown.
“I honestly feel if you’re not getting better in all areas, you’re kind of getting worse,” Kendricks said. “I just don’t want to be falling off. I’m definitely going to hone in on my craft, whether it’s pass rush, my drops [in coverage], route recognition, run game — my first step is always a little bit sloppy. I’m just trying to take it to the next level, honestly.”
Kendricks said his older brother, Philadelphia Eagles linebacker Mychal Kendricks, was one of the only people he’d told about his contract extension ahead of time. He wanted to surprise his parents, who “found out probably when everybody else found out,” he said.
He’ll continue chasing what his older brother claimed in Minneapolis in February: a chance to hoist the Lombardi Trophy.
“Just going back home, talking to him, it’s one of the things you dream of growing up, playing this sport,” Eric Kendricks said. “I can’t say it makes me any hungrier; I’ve been hungry, for sure. I just know what I want, and I’m going to work to get it.”