EAGAN — When Eric Kendricks answered his phone on May 1, 2015, the experience felt so surreal that he couldn’t speak. He was so shook it took him a few minutes to fully process that he would soon be playing with his former UCLA teammate Anthony Barr in the NFL, despite the fact that Barr had told him, “Eric we need you” in the lead up to the NFL draft and he had texted Barr moments before the pick.
Kendricks hadn’t expected to land with the Vikings. He had only one meeting with them at the NFL Combine and then never heard a peep again. The Vikings didn’t expect Kendricks to be there when they picked in the second round.
Rick Spielman was giddy. Teams had been buzzing the Vikings to move up to the 45th selection to take Kendricks but the Vikings’ GM wasn’t passing up a chance to give his defensive guru head coach Mike Zimmer the “most instinctual” linebacker in the draft.
“Ran well, plays heavy-handed to shed and get off blocks and really locate the ball,” Spielman said that night describing his newest prized pick. “He has great range sideline-to-sideline, he has the athletic skillset of a three-down linebacker.”
The studious Kendricks, who was sure to note that he’d produced a 3.2 GPA at UCLA in political science, had already done some research on Zimmer’s defense.
“Man, I can’t wait to play in it, that’s what I’m saying,” Kendricks said. “They feed a lot to the linebackers, and you got the front going on, the four down, you got my boy AB (Anthony Barr) coming off the edge but also behind the ball some times. I don’t know too much, but I am eager to learn.”
Current Yahoo! Sports draft analyst and former Pro Football Weekly NFL writer Eric Edholm was annoyed that night. He had been mock drafting Kendricks late in the first round for months, only to see him sink to the mid-second.
“His brain was moving at warp speed and you can see him pointing stuff out, he’s football smart, they raved about his character, scouts loved him.” Edholm said via phone last week. “People harp on the size too much, they talk about how he’s a thumper and whether he can hold up but he’s not just a thumper. He could chase guys down from behind, he could cover…people were calling him the quarterback of the defense there and that he had the best instincts. I remember thinking he’d be somewhere between 25 and 32. He slipped almost a full round more than I felt.”
In Kendricks’ early days he was described by Zimmer as playing like he’d had too much coffee but the Vikings’ head coach said that he knew quickly in camp that they had selected a good player. Xavier Rhodes, a 2013 pick who was just about to become one of the top corners in the league at the time of Kendricks’ selection, saw right away in camp that the Vikings picked a game-changer when he saw the linebacker’s motor.
“With EK he’s a guy who’s talented — smart and talented,” Rhodes said on Wednesday. “He can cover, he can fill in the hole, make tackles, blitz, go to gaps, hit the gaps we need to hit, when a guard pulls he can get into his gap, shed a block. A guy like that plays with a lot of heart and passion and can also cover as a linebacker. It’s all-around. He’s an all-purpose linebacker.”
Four years, seven months and 13 days after seeing his phone ring with a Minnesota area code, all parties involved are feeling pretty darn good about the way things played out. Kendricks is currently graded as the No. 1 linebacker in the NFL by Pro Football Focus and the league leader in defended passes.
He has led the Vikings in tackles every season that he’s been in Minnesota and played 97.2% of snaps on the team that reached the NFC title game in ’17.
The Kendricks pick was just the start of a draft that would change the trajectory of the Vikings’ franchise. It would rocket them from an emerging team that had made progress in 2014 to a playoff team in 2015 to a NFC Championship game in 2017 to crazy-high expectations over the next two years and beyond. Per PFF, the Vikings’ selections of Trae Waynes, Eric Kendricks, Danielle Hunter and Stefon Diggs have been worth more Wins Above Replacement than any other team’s draft in 2015.
Run straight, turn left
In the lead-up to the ’15 draft, Kendricks had been working out with a soft-spoken, shredded gentleman who was looking for advice on dropping back into coverage just in case he landed with a team that wanted him to be an outside linebacker.
At the NFL Combine, he had wowed team executives with his insane physique and outrageous results, scoring in the 90th or higher percentile in 40-yard dash, 10-yard split and broad jump while still bench pressing an impressive 25 reps.
The problem was that he didn’t sack anybody in college. Some teams simply would not draft a dude who didn’t sack anybody in college. To be exact, 4.5 sacks in 26 games at LSU.
“That was the thing about him, you were gambling on this incredibly high ceiling,” Edholm said. “But you had no production to go on sack wise so there are a few teams out there who put a lot into sack numbers and feel like that translates as well as any statistic. He probably got dinged by some of those teams.”
But the Vikings believed in Danielle Hunter’s character and his upside. On draft night, Spielman called it “A-plus, off the charts.”
“We spent time with him at the Combine, we spent time with him at our interviews at the Combine that night. Very serious kid, very focused and very passionate about wanting to be good,” Spielman said. “A lot of times when we are in the draft room, when we are talking about players, we talk about potential, and asking, does this guy have potential and the athletic traits that the coaches want to work with….You can’t find his unique traits that he has.”
During Hunter’s first training camp, Zimmer brought in former Dallas Cowboys defensive lineman Greg Ellis to work with the team. After working with Hunter, Ellis brought Zimmer a take that in 2019 we would have called “hot.”
He told Zimmer: “I think this guy is going to be like DeMarcus Ware.”
Zimmer’s response: “Are you kidding me?”
Before he got to Ware status, Hunter needed some work — uhh, a lot of work — on the technique side.
“He had a tendency to run straight up the field and turn left as opposed to taking the proper angle, getting on the offensive tackle, using his hands and using his athletic ability,” Zimmer said. “Basically, he’d run straight up the field, make a wide turn, have to turn left and didn’t have time to get there.”
When the Vikings played against the eventual Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos in ’15, Hunter played the role of Ware on the scout team. Zimmer liked the look of Hunter standing up off the edge and started using him that way. The sacks started to come with the 6-foot-5 rusher picking up more sacks in his rookie year than the entire time in college.
Once Zimmer got the sense that he might have something special in Hunter, he began working closely with him, similarly to the way he had trained Rhodes in 2014. That A-plus character showed in his vast improvement under the Vikings’ staff.
“He was going through the same thing that I was going through with Coach Zim, always on you,” Rhodes said. “Always paying attention to every move you make and I don’t know how he was handling that but as a player it becomes frustrating because every move you make, you’re like ‘ah the coach is on me.’ But the coach is helping you and look how Danielle became as a player. One of the best D-ends in the game right now.”
Before he turned 23 years old, Hunter cleared 20 sacks. By age 25, he became the youngest player ever to 50 sacks. This year he is third in sacks with 13.5 and leads the entire NFL in QB pressures, per PFF data.
But Zimmer isn’t done being always-on-you Coach Zim. He believes Hunter can continue improving.
“If he ever gets one more thing, two more things, he’s going to be unstoppable,” Zimmer said following a win over the Chargers in which Hunter’s strip sack was a game-changing play. “We’re talking to him about those things all the time, hopefully that will come with maturity. But he likes to rely on what he feels comfortable with right now.”
“People thought he wouldn’t beat press coverage”
Stefon Diggs watched 18 receivers get taken before him. Presently there are zero receivers who have more catches than Diggs and only one receiver from the 2015 draft who has more receiving yards and that’s fourth overall pick Amari Cooper.
So what happened? How did everyone miss so badly?
First was his injury history. In 2013 he suffered a broken leg and missed half the season. In 2014 he had a lacerated kidney.
Then there was the fact that he was leaving school early despite so-so numbers. In ’14 he caught 62 passes for 792 yards and five touchdowns. Charles Davis, writing for NFL.com at the time, suggested he stay another year in college.
“Diggs has been well-hyped since his high school days, but he’s not yet had the breakout year we’ve been waiting to see from him,” Davis wrote. “He’s battled injuries, and another year with the Terrapins would give him a chance to have that big year that has eluded him. Diggs could prove his durability and give his stock a big boost.”
And then there was the measurables. This chart of his WR ranks came from a Bleacher Report piece diving into Diggs’ draft stock:
And then there’s just some epic wrong-ness.
“One of the biggest knocks on Diggs from scouts is that he isn’t a very effective route runner,” Jacob Myers of Rotoviz wrote.
“Doesn’t possess the strength or long speed to make a living as an outside receiver,” NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein wrote.
“Undeveloped understanding of how to manipulate defenders in coverage. Adequate hands, but only average-sized catching radius,” CBS’s Dane Brugler wrote.
Be clear: These draft reports are based on what NFL teams say and it’s clear that the concerns stated were properly reported by Myers, Zierlein and Brugler. The teams were just wrong as all get out.
“With that draft you had either the crazy burners like Philip Dorsett who ran a 4.3 or you had big bodied guys like Funchess and Kevin White, and White was crazy fast too,” Edholm said. “Diggs seemed to fall somewhere in the middle even though he was this five-star recruit and he probably got hurt by the fact that he played with three or four quarterbacks there. That was probably the biggest thing. I would say the thin build was a bit of a question. People thought he wouldn’t beat press coverage, he’s not a blazer. It was one of those things that he just dropped another round or two for no good reason and it ended up being an incredible steal.”
Certainly the Vikings have bragging rights to tell everyone that they saw the light on Diggs but they also passed up on him until the fifth round. But Spielman did have a feeling on Diggs. At a Maryland-Virginia game in 2012, Diggs returned a kick for a touchdown and the Vikings’ GM was wowed by his explosiveness.
“He’s a very gifted athlete with the ball in his hands,” Spielman said on draft night. “He was a guy, that when we got there at that point, he can do so many things – he’s played outside, he’s played in the slot, he’s done some return stuff, probably had a little bit of a year that was down for him and his standards. The multiple things that he can do, and again, any time we see an athlete and ability to develop these guys, and we felt that he’d fit right in that mold.”
While Diggs’ character was questioned because of an incident against Penn State that got him suspended one game in ’14, he called himself a “dominant competitor” on draft night and that quickly proved to be true.
When he first arrived, however, nobody would have guessed that he would become one of the NFL’s best receivers or be on the right end of one of the franchise’s all-time great moments in the Minneapolis Miracle.
“Diggs, you could kind of tell when he was going through camp and then making some of the plays in camp,” Zimmer said. “If I remember right, we didn’t play him for like the first[three] games or something like that. In practice every day, he was making plays.”
When Diggs finally got on the field against Denver in Week 4, he made sure the Vikings never made him inactive again. He caught six passes for 87 yards, several against cornerback Aquib Talib, who played a large role in the Broncos’ No. 1 defense.
Now the guy who wasn’t projected as an outside receiver is second in the NFL in yards per catch as an outside receiver. Like Kendricks and Hunter have carried the Vikings’ defense through some bumps in the road, Diggs dominated with Adam Thielen sidelined with a hamstring injury.
Without the ’15 class, the Vikings might not be in the playoffs. They certainly wouldn’t have gone to the NFC Championship in ’17 and they might not be considered one of the top franchises in the NFL for players to sign or stay on long-term deals — which Kendricks, Hunter and Diggs have all done.
But is there some lesson to take away? Some common thread? Maybe that grabbing players who drop down the board because of size or Combine results is a clever strategy. Maybe it’s that players who have certain character traits like high football IQ, an ability to learn and a burning fire to compete are going to hit more often than not. Or maybe…
“You never really know going into the draft, I know Rick [Spielman] says he knows everything,” Zimmer joked. “But at the end of the day, you have to be lucky.”