Throughout his entire football career, Minnesota Vikings rookie linebacker Kentrell Brothers has been the center of attention on defense. A tackling machine with the Missouri Tigers that led the nation in tackles last season with 152 in 12 games and 274 in 26 games as a full-time starter at Mizzou, he has been asked to play a lot of roles on defense.
As he makes his transition to the NFL, starting this weekend with the annual rookie minicamp, Brothers is mindful that his role with the Vikings will likely largely be based on his ability to play special teams.
He’s hoping to make a big first impression on the defensive coaching staff and he was a little surprised how quickly he has been able to grasp the basic concepts of the Vikings defense and hit the ground running.
“I didn’t think things would go too smooth early on, but I was very surprised how well things have gone early on,” Brothers said. “Everyone here has been very helpful. It’s obvious that we have one common goal here and I’ve been enjoying it a lot.”
It’s rare when any college player can dominate the competition, much less in the talent-laden SEC, but Brothers has never let his size – 6-0, 245 pounds – get in his way of being a dominating player at the highest level of competition the college game has to offer. However, when it came to the NFL, a lot of teams focused on his measurable statistics, not his jaw-dropping tackle numbers.
During the pre-draft process, Brothers made a point of not paying attention to what the analysts and critics had to say about his lack of prototype size. He was focused on getting himself as prepared as he could be when he walked onto an NFL practice field for the first time and paid no attention to what outsiders had to say about his game.
You can’t measure heart and that’s one of Brothers’ primary attributes that he brings to the Vikings. The rest is just window dressing he didn’t have time for.
“I didn’t get involved in the process at all,” Brothers said. “I had people tagging me on Twitter about where they thought I was going to go, but I told my agent not to tell me anything about it. It shouldn’t really matter because I just love the game. Money is a big deal, but it never really has been a big thing with me. I’ve never had money, so it didn’t matter all that much. All I want to go out and show I belong, whether that’s on special teams or on the defense.”
The jury may still be out as to whether Brothers will be able to hold up against athletic offensive blockers that are much bigger than he is and running backs and tight ends that are more powerful than he has faced at the college level, but it is a near-certainty that he can win a roster spot as a core special teams player who can be a difference-maker on the coverage teams.
Special teams coordinator Mike Priefer is already a fan of Brothers. As part of the pre-draft process, he is asked to give his evaluation of linebackers that the Vikings are considering drafting. While special teams isn’t necessarily a quality that is a deal-maker for top-round draft picks, the ability to excel in the third phase of the game is very important and Priefer liked what he saw when watching game tape of Brothers.
“You call guys like Kentrell a J.O.P. – Jump On the Pile,” Priefer said. “Before the draft (linebackers coach) Adam Zimmer gives me a list of about 15 guys to look at from the Mike, Will and Sam spots. What I do for Mike (Zimmer) and Rick (Spielman) is that I rank them. He was one of the very top guys on my list for the J.O.P. reason – he’s always around the ball.”
Often times, the difference between making a roster and being one of the final cuts can be the skill level a player exhibits on special teams. Those who are critical of Brothers’ chances of ever being a full-time linebacker in the NFL likely haven’t watched him play that often – he’s been defying the odds his entire football career since his days in high school when he stopped growing at about the 6-foot mark.
But, for Priefer, it’s a different story. Special teamers are often like the Island of Misfit Toys of a football team. They may not be the shiny toy that everyone stops and takes notice of, but special teams are a critical aspect of any team and having a player like Brothers is a glove fit for Priefer – even if he may be a little over his head physically on defense.
“He doesn’t have the ideal size height-wise for a linebacker in the NFL, but that doesn’t matter to me,” Preifer said. “I had Larry Dean here for three years and he was one of the best special teams players I’ve ever coached. Kentrell is bigger than Larry, so he’ll have a better chance of playing linebacker, but for our purposes on special teams, he brings a lot of toughness to the table. He’s around the ball, he has got a nose for the ball, he can run and hit and he’s tough. There’s a lot of good things that he’s going to bring to the competition. We’ve got some pretty good linebackers on special teams and he’s just going to add to that.”
Brothers comes to the Vikings with a work ethic and determination that has got him this far as a college standout. He attributes to working hard throughout the year to perfect his craft. It has worked for him thus far and he is bringing that same work ethic to his anticipated assignments with the Vikings.
“So much of what you do to succeed – making plays and making tackles – comes down to studying film and being where you’re supposed to be,” Brothers said. “I’ve always prided myself on working hard in practice and in film study. Obviously, things are different at this level, but once I get my assignments down, I should be ready to roll.”
Brothers has spent much of his college career defying the odds. He was told he was too small to excel in the SEC and he proved his doubters wrong. He has even more skeptics in the NFL who claim he doesn’t have the size and brute strength to be dominant player. He isn’t buying any of it.
While May 6 and September are a long time apart in the big picture of things in the NFL, Brothers is taking every opportunity to make the most of the chances he gets on defense and special teams and, regardless of what his role ends up being, he plans to attack it with the same ferocity he has approached his football career to date.
“They haven’t talked to me too much about (my role) other than to say they’re counting on me to be strong on special teams,” Brothers said. “Special teams is always a role rookies are expected to play. They’ve had me playing in the middle on the defense and I’m feeling really good about it. I’ve been catching on to the game plan pretty good, so I’m feeling very comfortable with that end of it. Wherever they want me, that’s fine. Whatever roles I can play on special teams and defense, I’m open to all of it.”