When the Minnesota Vikings drafted linebacker Eric Kendricks, head coach Mike Zimmer had a hard time controlling his smile when he spoke about him – much in the same way he did a year earlier with Kendricks’ college roommate, Anthony Barr.
Some draft analysts had knocks as to how both would adapt in a 4-3 defense. Barr was allegedly better suited for a pass-rushing 3-4 linebacker spot. Kendricks was supposed to be undersized for a classic 4-3 middle linebacker role.
Both have proved the skeptics wrong and Zimmer right.
Kendricks is excited about Act II of his NFL career. He led the team in tackles as a rookie and did so while still learning the nuances of the Zimmer defense.
A year later, Kendricks feels much more at home and is getting more comfortable in being the man in the middle of the Vikings defense.
“It’s a different world out there for me,” Kendricks said. “The terminology is really starting to register with me. I’m starting to learn the defense more and it’s giving me a lot more confidence in knowing what is going on around me – not just my assignments.”
Coming off a strong rookie season, the expectations coming into 2016 are going to be equally lofty for Kendricks. His role in the defense is coming with a raised bar, but Kendricks is putting the onus on himself to make sure the bar is set higher.
“Nobody puts more expectations on me than I did,” Kendricks said. “I came into training camp last year looking to win a starting job and I put everything I had into earning that job. It meant a lot to me when I found out I would be starting, but the way I looked at it, now I had to start earning it.”
While the success the Vikings had defensively met many of the checklist standards that team had set in 2015, Kendricks has loftier goals for this year. Despite enjoying great strides last season, the follow-up is what will be important for the 2016 Vikings.
Kendricks wasn’t around for the first year of building the Zimmer defense, but he in on board with the belief that better things are still to come.
“We accomplished some of the goals we had for last season,” Kendricks said. “But, that was then. We’re going to have new goals for ourselves this year and that is what we have to set our sights on. Right now, it doesn’t matter that we won the division last year. It’s a new season and we have to go out and prove that this year’s team is better than what we put out there last year.”
When the Vikings hit Mankato for the start of training camp, the expectation is going to be that those sitting in the stands are, at a minimum, looking at the team that is going to win back-to-back NFC North titles, and at a maximum, be a Super Bowl team.
As high as the expectations are going to be, those in charge of serving up the Kool Aid are just as excited about the potential. For Kendricks, it’s an opportunity to start placing more achievements on his NFL resume.
“I’m really looking forward to it,” Kendricks said. “I know I still have a lot to learn – you never stop learning here. The best thing we have going is that we all know the defense a lot better than we did a year ago, especially me. I’m just looking to take in as much as I can and get better every day. We’ve got a good thing going and we’re looking to build on it.”