Tom Dahlin/Viking Update

Sunday slant: Anthony Barr, Eric Kendricks forming versatile linebacker duo

Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks give Mike Zimmer a young, versatile duo at linebacker to keep offenses guessing.

The trade of Gerald Hodges created confusion among the Minnesota Vikings fan base. We get it: Trading a starter for a sixth-round draft choice, even if a backup offensive lineman was part of the deal, doesn’t seem like great value, especially when the Vikings used a fourth-round pick to select Hodges in 2013.

General manager Rick Spielman loves getting extra draft picks, but the trade also reinforced the notion that the Vikings are pretty deep at linebacker … and the idea that three linebackers aren’t on the field as much as they used to be. In a pass-trending NFL, nickel packages with only two linebackers are increasing common.

This much should be apparent, however: The Vikings have a developing strength at the position with the combination of former UCLA linebackers Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks.

Kendricks is expected to step in at middle linebacker in the base package and likely become a full-time player only five games into his rookie season. Hodges played in a season-low 25 snaps against the Denver Broncos while Kendricks had played in a combined 72 snaps the last two games.

Barr has been off the field for only 15 of the Vikings’ 282 defensive snaps so far this season. After playing in only 10 snaps in the season opener, when the Vikings were in the base defense often against a San Francisco 49ers team that used three-tight end sets often, Kendricks has averaged 42 snaps in his last three games. That’s likely to increase over the final three-quarters of the season.

The combination of Barr and Kendricks could provide plenty of versatility – and excitement – in the linebacker corps, if the Denver game is an indication.

Barr was the pass-rushing fiend the prior week against the San Diego Chargers. A week later, he was used in coverage more and showed just how far that part of his game has come after entering the NFL raw in experience there just a year ago.

“I feel a lot better, a lot more comfortable than I have obviously than last year. Still feel like I have some areas to improve on, but I feel like I have taken a step forward from last season,” Barr said.

“… I would just say it was new. Anytime something is new to you, you’re going to have your bumps and bruises. Now I feel I’m more confident, more understanding, and I’m able to play faster.”

That showed last Sunday when he came off his assignment upon reading Peyton Manning’s eyes, stepping in front of a pass intended for another target and returning the interception 32 yards to set up the Vikings’ first touchdown of the game before halftime.

It was Barr’s first career interception, but he downplayed it coming against a future Hall of Famer.

“It was cool and it was a good play for the team, so I’m just happy about that,” he said.

“I was in the right spot at the right time. I did my job, did my assignment and I think he thought I was carrying the vertical route. I just came off on it and he just threw it to me.”

It was further testament to how he has progressed.

But his college and professional teammate Kendricks was equally as effective. While Barr’s blitzing decreased against Denver, Kendricks made the most of his opportunity. He registered one of the two sacks against Manning, and it was his first sack as a professional.

“It’s a pretty cool moment for each of us,” Barr said. “We just wish we could have come out on the winning end of that game.”

Barr and Kendricks did their part in the effort. Barr led the team with six tackles, has his interception and registered a pass defensed. Kendricks tied for third with four tackles, had his sack, added a tackle for loss and another quarterback hit.

“We have a lot of depth at that position,” general manager Rick Spielman said.

Spielman talked about the specific traits Kendricks has to use in a Mike Zimmer defense that values versatility.

Both of them are adept at blitzing and solid enough in pass coverage to be used in a variety of ways, and on a full-time basis.

Barr entered the NFL last year with only two years of experience at linebacker and wasn’t used much in pass coverage at UCLA. In one year, he said, he has turned that part of his game from a weakness to something he now wants to do after being “hesitant” with it last year.

Having two linebackers that can be strong at either part of the game keeps the offense guessing what Zimmer will dial up next, and which player is doing what.

“In the San Diego game I was rushing a lot. In this game I dropped back in coverage a lot,” Barr said. “It’s really a week-to-week thing, a game-plan thing. Whatever I’m asked to do, I’m doing it.”

He and Kendricks are both doing it well and look like a strong foundation for the defense for years to come.

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