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The future of the Vikings part 7: Linebackers and specialists

In the lead up to free agency and the NFL Draft, we will look at what happened in 2019 and all the possible options of every Vikings position. Here we take a close look at the linebackers and specialists…(all stats via PFF and Pro-Football Reference)

PART 1: Quarterbacks

PART 2: Running backs

PART 3: Wide receivers/tight ends

PART 4: Offensive line

PART 5: Defensive line

PART 6: Secondary

Eric Kendricks, superstar

Prior to the 2019 season, Eric Kendricks was considered a solid NFL linebacker. His contract — five years, $50 million with $22 million guaranteed — reflected a solid player. His Pro Football Focus grades told the story of a solid player. He ranked 23rd of 58 linebackers in 2016, 29th of 58 in 2017 and 37th of 57 in 2018.

Since coverage is the most important aspect of playing the position these days, his value was higher than his rankings but nonetheless nobody would have put his name next to the likes of Bobby Wagner and Luke Keuchly until 2019.

With a 90.4 PFF grade, Kendricks rated as the No. 1 linebacker in the NFL. He graded as the fourth best in coverage and the second best run stopper. Kendricks led the league with 13 pass break ups and gave up the lowest completion percentage on throws into his coverage of 57 linebackers with at least 600 snaps.

So where did the jump come from? Is his play sustainable?

Earlier this year head coach Mike Zimmer explained Kendricks’s sudden jump from solid to elite:

“I think he just understands the scheme better. You know, everybody says how great he’s playing. I think he’s always been pretty darn good, and so to me, is there a big jump? I don’t know. I guess I’ll have to evaluate it at the end of the season. But I mean he’s a see-ball, get-ball guy, always has been, and that’s kind of why he’s been able to make plays. He sees something and he goes, and he doesn’t hold back. He’s not afraid to shoot his gun, and so I think he’s just playing with a bunch of confidence, feels secure about the system, understands where everybody is going to be and I think that’s been important for him.”

Kendricks wouldn’t be the first middle linebacker to reach his peak after several years in the league. From 2013-2015, Bobby Wagner graded 66.9, 79.0 and 69.7 by PFF standards and then followed those strong season with three straight years above 85 and emerged as one of the best players at the position. Veteran Saints linebacker Demario Davis’s highest grade before 2019 was 75.5 but this year he ranked second in the NFL with a 90.1 score.

At 27 years old and with a remarkable history of health, there’s no reason to believe Kendricks won’t follow a similar path as Wagner. And the fact that he is under contract through 2023 with cap hits between $9.9 and $12 million makes him one of the best bargains in the NFL if he continues to play at his 2019 level.

The Anthony Barr contract

The same cannot be said for Anthony Barr, who jilted the Jets to re-sign with the Vikings last offseason to the tune of a five-year, $67.5 million deal. The Vikings worked out his contract to carry just a $5.6 million cap hit in 2019 but that number will jump to $12.7 million in 2020 and $15.5 million in 2021.

In order to justify the money spent, the Vikings will need more from their former first-round pick.

While Zimmer has explained on numerous occasions that Barr’s unique combination of size/smarts/speed makes life difficult on opponents and allows the Vikings’ defensive mastermind to dial up anything he wants from his linebacker, the results in key areas do not compare to other players in Barr’s price range.

He graded as the 31st (of 58) ranked linebacker in the league by PFF, posted the lowest pass rush grade of his career and gave up a 105.0 rating on throws into his coverage. In past years there was discussion of using Barr more in the pass rush but he was only asked to chase quarterbacks 109 times and created 12 hurries, seven QB hits and two sacks. His pass rush per snap rate was nearly identical to the percentage of rushes for his career.

In coverage opponents threw toward Barr more times than ever before in his six-year career and completed 77.8% of passes his way. He also finished with the second lowest overall PFF grade and second lowest run defense grade of his six seasons.

Barr’s 2017 and 2018 grades of 71.5 and 70.5 are probably more reflective of who he really is rather than his 2015 90.0 grade or 59.9 mark of this season but the fact that Barr has seen a rollercoaster of performances in areas that PFF counts tells us that it’s hard to predict whether his $12-$15 million cap hits are going to be worth the space spent or total albatrosses from year to year.

The backups

For the second straight year, former undrafted special teamer Eric Wilson showed that he could come off the bench and fill in admirably for Kendricks or Barr. He played 380 snaps total, allowed a 106.9 rating into his coverage, created four pressures on 12 pass rush snaps and graded an overall 67.6 by PFF.

With Ben Gedeon injured, Wilson also took over duties as the third linebacker in run situations or when opponents used heavy personnel. Gedeon had several concussions, which may put his future as a run stuffer in question.

While he won’t be a household name, Wilson is a valuable piece who may eventually become a starter elsewhere.

Fifth-round rookie Cameron Smith only saw 33 snaps and was largely used on special teams.

Good kickin’ (and holdin’) 

Both of the Vikings’ specialists are free agents. It would be in their best interest to bring them both back.

Veteran Dan Bailey was one of the NFL’s best kickers in 2019, nailing 27-of-29 field goal attempts and 40-of-44 extra points. In 2017 and 2018, it appeared that Bailey might be fading from his past form, combining to only make 75% of his kicks but with improved health and an  experienced holder in Britton Colquitt he was able to regain the form of his previous years in Dallas in which Bailey made 88.2% of field goals on 211 tries.

Colquitt averaged 45.6 yards per punt and put together an excellent performance in the Vikings’ playoff win over the Saints in which he helped control field position with six punts at an average of 49.6 yards per boot.

The future of the franchise 

The Vikings know exactly what they have at the linebacker position and should feel about as strong as any team in the NFL at that spot with Kendricks reaching his peak and Barr having the capability to dominate at times. However as they deal with salary cap issues, it’s hard not to wonder if Barr’s contract will become problematic at some point. Zimmer’s appreciation for Barr makes an immediate trade unlikely but it might be considered down the road, especially if the Vikings re-sign quarterback Kirk Cousins and running back Dalvin Cook to mega deals.


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