Vikings’ 25 and under top 10: Eric Kendricks

The performance of Eric Kendricks in his rookie season will decide plenty of future moves at linebacker for the Vikings.

The Minnesota Vikings added another young linebacker to their roster in this year’s draft when they selected Eric Kendricks in the second round. He was a college teammate of outside linebacker Anthony Barr, whom the Vikings drafted in the first round in 2014. Kendricks’ role on the team is still unclear, but the 2015 season should clear things up for everyone.

At 6 feet and 232 pounds, Kendricks is an undersized middle linebacker but he has proven that he is able to overcome that. During his senior year at UCLA he was able to record 149 tackles, four sacks, three interceptions – one returned for a touchdown – two passes defensed and a forced fumble. At the end of his senior season he was named the Butkus Award Winner, which goes to the best linebacker in the nation.

Kendricks plays with good instincts and athleticism, which allows him to diagnose plays early and make the correct reads on them. Even though he is undersized he is still able to get around blocks with relative ease but needs to be able to meet ball carriers behind the line of scrimmage more often than he did in college. He recorded a lot of tackles, but more tackles for a loss should be an area of emphasis at the NFL level.

He is solid as a run stopper, but his real strength appears to be in pass coverage. The Vikings have not had a middle linebacker who has the ability to drop back into coverage in a long time and that is exactly what Kendricks offers them. The coaches clearly have confidence in his abilities already since he was getting first-team reps as a nickel defender.

Even though he has a lot of upside, the Vikings seem completely convinced with how they want to use Kendricks this year and moving forward. He is currently in a competition for the middle linebacker spot with fourth-year pro Audie Cole. Kendricks is expected to win the job at some point during the season, even if it is not at the start of the season. He also has a good chance at becoming one of the linebackers on the field in the nickel package, likely beating out Chad Greenway, who could be entering his final NFL season.

But what will Kendricks’ role be moving forward after the 2015 season? Will the Vikings keep him at middle linebacker? After the team drafted him, head coach Mike Zimmer said that the eventual plan could be to move him to the weak side, likely as Greenway’s replacement once he retires. The problem there is that the Vikings also have Gerald Hodges waiting in the wings for that position, and Hodges has proven he is able to play at a high level in the NFL.

A lot of Kendricks’ future will come down to how well he is able to play middle linebacker during this year. The Vikings ranked No. 25 in run defense last year, allowing an average of 121.4 rushing yards a game. That is a big reason why the Vikings decided to spend a second-round pick on a linebacker only a year after using a first-round pick on a strongside linebacker.

If Kendricks performs at a high level and shows the coaching staff he is able to hold down the middle of the field, it might not make sense to move him to the weak side unless they have to. At the same time, if he struggles to stop the run and get off blocks by NFL linemen, then it will not make much sense for the team to keep him in the middle and they will likely bring in a new middle linebacker next season.

There is a lot riding on Kendricks’ rookie season, and how he plays likely will decide not only his role on the team moving forward but also the role of multiple other players in a domino effect. He has looked good so far in offseason workouts, but those aren’t game situations or even padded practices. Still, one thing is for sure: His performance, whether good or bad, will be a focal point for many people throughout the season.

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