Barr, a first-round selection in 2014, and Kendricks, a second-round pick in 2015, have shown their speed and athleticism early in their careers, with Barr making the Pro Bowl in his second season in the NFL.
The Vikings waited longer in this year’s draft before putting a linebacker’s name on their draft card, but when the fifth round and the 160th pick finally brought the Vikings back on the draft clock, their selection of Kentrell Brothers was based mostly on what they saw on film: an extremely productive, instinctual linebacker.
Zimmer, the linebackers coach for the Vikings, first saw Brothers in person at the Senior Bowl in late January.
“I was able to interview him there and he seemed like a good kid and smart, could pick up things. And then you turn on the tape and he’s a really productive player,” Zimmer said. “You see some of the numbers, they don’t wow you, but when you watch the guy on tape you say, ‘This is a good football player.’ I think that overrides some of the combine numbers.”
The numbers that didn’t wow: a 4.84-second 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine, or really any of the speed measurements for Brothers that were mostly average or below average for his position group, and his height (6 feet, 3/8 of an inch). The numbers that did wow: college football’s leading tackler in 2015 with 152.
“Like Coach says all the time, you’ve got to trust what you see. And what I see on tape all the time with Kentrell is he makes tackles all over the field,” Zimmer said. “He’s instinctive and he’s a playmaker. If he’s half a tenth of a second slower than everybody else, the instincts are going to make up for it.”
As Zimmer and the Vikings scouting staff dug into the film on Brothers, instincts and production were the attributes that showed regularly. So what makes one player more instinctive than another?
“Intelligence is one of them. Just having a good feel for the game, a good student of the game,” Zimmer said. “From what all I can tell is Kentrell really does a great job of studying the game and knowing what he’s going to get so he can anticipate and be a step faster than what he is.”
Many draft analysts in the media thought Brothers could be a second-round pick. After all, he led the nation in tackles while playing in the formidable Southeastern Conference.
Still, when the fifth round reached its mid-point, Brothers was still available. In a world where measurables can sometimes influence decisions too much, the Vikings didn’t make Brothers wait any longer to officially become an NFL player.
Zimmer likes tall linebackers and has that in Barr. But Brothers showed he knows how to play at a high level with what he’s been given.
“I like tall linebackers because they can get in the throwing lane. But same with Eric. Eric is a quarter of inch or eighth of an inch shorter than him, but I don’t think it’s a detriment to (Brothers) being a little undersized,” Zimmer said. “He’s 245 pounds. It’s not like he’s 227 and 6 foot. I’ll go back to when I was in Kansas City. We didn’t draft Navarro Bowman because he was a half an inch too short. Well, he’s a hell of a football player. Sometimes you’ve got to overlook some things when what you see on tape is a good football player.”
Another undersized linebacker that carved out a Pro Bowl-laden NFL career was London Fletcher, who tweeted that Brothers reminds him of himself.
“He was a hell of a player, he was very instinctive. He was a little undersized,” Zimmer said of Fletcher, whose best days in the NFL predated Zimmer’s coaching days. “If (Brothers) turns to out to be that, it would be a hell of a player. I hope that comes to be the truth.”
For now, the Vikings’ top three linebackers from last year – Barr, Kendricks and Chad Greenway – are all set to return to the starting lineup. But in the fifth round, the Vikings found Brothers, a tackling machine – he finished the 2015 season with 10 or more tackles in seven consecutive games – that also proved he can be productive on special teams.
He led the nation with three blocked kicks, and game-day linebackers in the NFL that aren’t starting have to be able to play special teams. Vikings special teams coordinator Mike Priefer looked at Brothers and liked what he saw, as well.
Eventually, Brothers could settle in a contributing, possibly starting, middle linebacker that would push Kendricks to the weak side, after Greenway retires.
“Right now I think (middle linebacker) is his best fit,” Zimmer said of Brothers. “Coming in as a rookie, he’s got to be able to swing and play multiple positions, just like everybody. Audie Cole has played every position for us since I’ve been here. It’s not like you can only play Mike linebacker. You have to be able to be flexible because sometimes we go into a game with only five linebackers.”