Almost from the minute the Vikings drafted UCLA linebacker Eric Kendricks in the second round of April’s draft, the belief was that he would likely be the frontrunner to end the revolving door at middle linebacker that has taken place since E.J. Henderson broke his leg in 2009 and was never the same.
With Jasper Brinkley gone, the conventional wisdom was that Kendricks would be battling with Audie Cole and Michael Mauti for the starting job and the primary backup position. But Mike Zimmer and his staff have thrown a curve into those plans, giving Gerald Hodges a shot to get in the mix and see a lot of playing time against the Cowboys to determine if he has what it takes to not only be in the mix but potentially be the starter once the regular season kicks in.
Kendricks is blessed with natural athleticism that lends itself well to not only filling run lanes in the middle, but to chase down plays to the sideline when necessary. However, hindsight has showed us that the Vikings have quietly had plans for Hodges in the middle since training camp.
When the Vikings were taking practice reps, Hodges primarily was playing on the outside, but was also taking snaps in the middle, lending itself to the idea that the Vikings weren’t going to pigeon-hole Hodges as being a one-spot player. In Zimmer’s defense, players are asked to be proficient in multiple roles because the dynamic of the defense calls for players to wear multiple hats depending on the down, distance and time in the game. Hodges clearly would appear to be one of those players.
Asked about his maturation in the Zimmer-scheme defense, Hodges said it has been a learning experience that he has embraced.
“When I first got here (in 2013), I thought things were going to be easy to make the move from college to the NFL,” Hodges said. “I found out pretty quick that I had a lot to learn and that I needed to commit myself a lot more to be the kind of player I know I can be. I’m working every day to improve my game and it doesn’t matter to me where I play. I just want to get on the field and help our team win games.”
There is no doubting that Kendricks has a place in the starting lineup at some point, whether it is immediately in the middle or, given his coverage skills, as the eventual replacement to Chad Greenway. On Saturday, he could be alongside Anthony Barr in the nickel defense, just as he was all week in practice. The conventional wisdom was that to win the starting middle linebacker spot, all he had to do was outperform Cole, who is a tackling machine, but has athletic limitations in coverage. With Hodges now in the mix, there could be significant changes in playing time and where linebackers align themselves from one play to the next.
This new wrinkle with the shifting of Hodges inside may just be an experiment, but it looks to be bad news for Mauti, who, if Hodges proves to have the position flexibility to play inside or outside, could become a roster casualty when the hard decisions need to be made as the Vikings pare their roster down to 53 players.
There are several spots on the Vikings roster that have been locked down and starting spots and backup roles have been clearly defined. It was seem just as clear that the Vikings aren’t going to rush to judgment when it comes to determining who is the primary man in the middle, making this the matchup to watch as fans get to see the most of their frontline players that they going to see this preseason.