When he was a linebacker in college at the University of Missouri, Kentrell Brothers was almost impossible to miss. He routinely had double-digit tackles and stood out on film every game.
However, when he came to the Minnesota Vikings, he was pushed to the back end of the roster behind more veteran players. His role as a rookie has primarily been on special teams as he gets acclimated to the NFL. He’s been patient because when he first came to Missouri he was asked to play a similar role.
“I kind of compare it to my redshirt freshman year of college,” Brothers said. “We had three starters with experience and I was a special teams guy. I haven’t gotten any defensive reps here – I did that year at Mizzou – but I learned to be patient and do my job to do whatever I can to help, whether it’s play special teams, be on the scout team or play defense when I’m asked to and wait for my opportunity.”
The evolution of Brothers as a player didn’t come without some problems. He initially had some difficulty accepting his role because, like a lot of college football stars, it had been a long time since he had been a role player.
He came to the Vikings with an impressive SEC pedigree and had earned his college stripes, but he had to learn the ropes of making the jump to the NFL and that transition doesn’t always come easy for college stars.
“He’s a lot more comfortable now than when he got here,” linebacker Anthony Barr said. “When he first got here, like any other rookie, he wasn’t trying to do too much, but he was trying to be too cool in the locker room. I think at first, that kind of rubbed guys the wrong way. But, ever since we got back from training camp, he’s been an awesome player for us. He understands the scheme and works really hard. I think he’s going to be a great asset going forward.”
Despite Brothers’ impressive college production, it has taken time for him to make the adjustment because the players are bigger, stronger and faster in the NFL and he has seen that he needs to catch up to his learning curve.
Brothers has credited his coaches and teammates for helping that process along and his confidence is growing as the coaching staff’s confidence in him increases.
“I’ve been getting reps in practice and the coaches are always checking up on me to make sure I know the plays and my assignments,” Brothers said. “They’re making sure I know the play, making sure I know the tendencies and making sure I know what the other team is doing. They’re staying on me hard and I appreciate that they care and think I can actually play on this team.”
As he has begun to take on a larger role, his teammates have been able to spot his talent and his strengths. According to Eric Kendricks, that starts with his football smarts – which is off the chain.
“He’s incredibly intelligent, which is big in this defense,” Kendricks said. “I see him as a guy who just finds the ball. That’s something you can’t coach. Whether on special teams or on defense, he’s going to make a difference because he knows how to get to the ball.”
Like Kendricks, when it came draft weekend, Brothers had to wait a little longer than his talent indicated he should. The biggest knock on both of them was the same – they’re undersized for the NFL game.
But Kendricks, the Vikings’ leading tackler, disagreed, saying that the evolution of the NFL is changing and that hybrid players like giant safeties and smaller linebackers have an expanding role in NFL defenses.
“Me and Kentrell, guys of our size are the new linebackers in the NFL,” Kendricks said. “It’s a passing league and we have to be able to cover in any situations as well as play the run and take on blocks. Linebacker is changing and it’s not like we’re too small and getting pushed around too much. Both of us feel fine with our size and our ability to make plays on the field because, with so much passing, really big linebackers don’t play every down.”
Brothers is still a work in progress as an NFL player. He has been asked to learn a relatively complicated defense that Mike Zimmer runs and has received assistance from Barr, Kendricks and especially veteran Chad Greenway.
Brothers has learned a lot from Greenway, who has been willing to help him out with the intricacies of the defense. Brothers needed to learn the ins and outs of the NFL, which was more difficult than a lot of players coming into the NFL had to deal with.
“At Mizzou, everything was pretty simplified,” Brothers said. “I never had to make the type of reads that I have to make now – reading routes and stuff like that. I was pretty much just a spot-dropper in college. As a rookie, getting extra help from Chad and E.K. and A.B., I think I’ve gotten it down pretty well.”
As he enters his first NFL offseason, Brothers is looking to improve the nuances of his game and push for more playing time next season. He has come to grips with his role on the team and, if that is what it remains, he’s willing to go along with it. But he hopes the experience he gained in 2016 will carry over to next season, as he plans to make it tougher for the coaches to keep him off the field.
“My goal this offseason is to just continue to learn this defense,” Brothers said. “I’m going to take some time off, go work out, staying in the playbook and get back here and do what I can to earn my spot. If that’s special teams again, I definitely don’t mind, but I want to push myself to have a role in this defense.”