Being the team’s leading tackler as a rookie, one who wasn’t even starting at the beginning of the season, hasn’t caused Eric Kendricks to get complacent.
Kendricks became only the second rookie to lead the Minnesota Vikings in tackles, with the first one being Rip Hawkins in the franchise’s inaugural season of 1961.
Players and coaches praise the preparation that Kendricks puts into each opponent, but he says the next step for him is to become quicker at diagnosing what he is facing each week of the season.
“That’s my goal this year is to understand what the offense is doing and get a little jump on the reads and be a little faster to the ball,” he said.
His preparation in the past has helped him become one of the leading tacklers at the college level before he was a second-round pick of the Vikings in 2015. He is the all-time leading tackler at UCLA with 481 and was the nation’s top tackler with 101 in 2014.
But coming into the NFL and trying to be the on-field director of the defense can be an imposing task as a rookie.
“It was very difficult,” he said, “but I truly believe they wouldn’t have put me to the task if I couldn’t have handled it and here I am and I’m going to keep working to be better every day.”
This year, coaches say, Kendricks looks even more comfortable than he was as a rookie.
“Last year was his first year and first year in the system. Now after going through the system he’s calm because he’s confident in what it is he’s doing. That’s been a blessing,” defensive coordinator George Edwards said. “His communication has been a lot better. He hasn’t had to think quite as much. He’s been able to use the athleticism. He has been making plays in coverage, he’s been doing good in the run game. We’re just looking forward to him continuing to improve and work on those things at the position.”
Following his first season in the NFL, the Pro Football Writers Association named him to the all-rookie team and he earned NFC Defensive Rookie of the Month in October after spending the first three games of his career behind starter Gerald Hodges. But seeing how Kendricks was digesting the defense in practices gave the Vikings confidence to trade Hodges after three games.
On Sunday, head coach Mike Zimmer described a more comfortable Kendricks, saying at times last year he looked like he had too much coffee and now he has settled down.
“Sounds about right,” Kendricks said, laughing at the description. “I’m getting a little more comfortable. The playbook is under my belt for a year now. I’m just trying to get better every day. Everyone is trying to get back. Our D-line and our safeties and our DBs are playing awesome, too.”
It was a learning process as a rookie, despite being a tackling machine. The biggest criticism of Kendricks last year was that he was trying to do too much at times, and he admitted as much.
“That’s what they taught me,” he said, “just stay in the scheme of the defense and everything will work.”
There is little doubt Kendricks will continue to work, as well.
“I had a good offseason and I’m just trying to build every day,” he said. “These camp days are crucial as far as the meeting rooms and the film study. These days out on the practice field … are crucial for my development and my understanding of what the offense is doing.”