EAGAN — Eric Kendricks and Danielle Hunter embraced in celebration on the ground after making a tackle against the Oakland Raiders. The FOX television cameras caught them smiling, looking like kids on the playground.
Kendricks likes to add a little extra to his celebrations. Last week against the Eagles, the entire defense posed for photos after an interception. Kendricks did a handstand.
He’s playing with the energy and enthusiasm of someone who has just fallen in love with football and it is showing up in the results. Pro Football Focus currently ranks him as the second best linebacker in the game. He’s No. 1 versus the run and leads the NFL in passes defended.
“He’s really developed nicely from his first practice where he was wide-eyed and trying to run around and make every play,” linebackers coach Adam Zimmer said. “He knows the defense. He anticipates plays before they come. He has incredible instincts that aid in all that…he’s a student of the game…each game and each year he’s gotten a lot better.”
The former UCLA standout, who was largely considered too small to be a first-round pick, is reaching the top of the mountain. He signed a five-year, $50 million in April 2018 and now he’s the point he’s gone from a young player who tried too hard to make plays at times to consistently one of the top linebackers in the game. On a conference call Monday, he acknowledged he would love to make his first Pro Bowl.
“I always feel like I’m a just a little underrated,” Kendricks said. “It is how it’s going to be. I’m trying to be the best person I can be and trying to accomplish things that I’ve never accomplished before. So that being one of them, I would definitely say [making the Pro Bowl] on the list of things to do but it doesn’t take over my motivation or anything like that.”
At 27, Kendricks has reached that age where people start to see the entire picture.
His position coach says that he has a full understanding of offenses, defenses, route combinations, ways to communicate with teammates and when he should be aggressive.
“I think he has a really good grasp of the coverage scheme,” Zimmer said. “This has been the most consistent he’s been in coverage for us as far as playing disciplined in your zone, not trying to do too much and knowing where everyone else is and that often comes with experience. He’s seen pretty much everything from an offensive standpoint. He can anticipate what’s happening even better. He’s not seeing ghosts or trying to jump something…he’s been the most consistent that he’s been throughout his career.”
Aside from the hardcore football knowledge required of middle linebackers, he can also see how certain things impacted him in life. Things like his father’s crack cocaine addiction and being raised by a hard-working mother. He can see the difference football made in his life.
“I’ve always thought about coaching,” Kendricks said. “I don’t know if it’s going to be high school or Pop Warner but I feel like at some point in my life I have to give back some of my knowledge to the youth. I always pictured myself coaching young kids.”
His desire to someday teach doesn’t surprise anyone in the Vikings’ facility.
“I’ve seen him when he’s come to camps that my dad has done and he’s great interacting with kids,” Zimmer said. “He has a really good knowledge of the game. I asked him and he said he’d probably coach high school or something like that because he gets to be around kids and develop people who are like him. His personality is outgoing and I think he’d do a good job.”
Kendricks’ linebacking partner Anthony Barr, who has been playing by his side since the two were together at UCLA, agreed with his position coach.
“I think it would be perfect,” Barr said. “He’s got a lot of energy and he’s going to bring a lot of intensity but he’s also patient, intelligent person who can communicate and simplify things for kids.”
Barr also didn’t have things easy in his youth. He was raised by a single mother and has since started a foundation to assist single-parent households. He fully understands the call to pay it forward.
“We were once in a position where we didn’t have everything that we do now and we see somebody in need and not as fortunate as we are it’s kind of our duty and our job to help as many people as we can to help them accomplish goals and give opportunities to at least have a chance and do our part,” Barr said.
Kendricks’ coaching future is already in the works with several young understudies in the linebackers’ room. Eric Wilson and Ben Gedeon both joined the team as rookies in 2017 and have played roles in the defense, Wilson as a fill-in for Barr or Kendricks and Gedeon as a run-stuffing specialist. Both players have grown in part because of the tutelage of the starter.
“He understands the whole defense and where he fits in that,” Wilson said. “He understands when he can be aggressive and when not to be. When I played that position he helped me out and told me some things that I need to know that are different from playing outside. Middle linebacker, you are in the middle of the field and you can’t go somewhere too fast, you have to understand defenses and offense and how you relate and he does a great job of that.”
“With Eric, I think he’s learned a bunch about route concepts and how our schemes match up to some of the offenses that we’re playing,” Gedeon said. “It’s helped me and Eric Wilson. They are coaches on the field and are always trying to help us out a lot.”
Zimmer has seen the impact that a player who takes a coach’s mindset can have on others.
“You need to be outspoken, you need to be confident in yourself, he definitely has both of those things,” Zimmer said. “He will blurt stuff out all the time, sometimes random questions and that’s good because there might be other guys in the room that are wondering the same thing or had the same question. That helps out the whole team.”
No matter what the craft, there’s a funny effect from teaching others: It sharpens your understanding as well. Kendricks credits teaching with helping his in own elevation.
“It does [make you better],” he said. “If you are going to be telling someone to do something a certain way or suggesting something, you better be damn sure you are practicing what you preach.”
There’s also the pride that coaches feel when they see their understudies succeed. Kendricks is looking forward to that when he someday works with up-and-coming players. Of course, there are many coaches who already know that feeling because of who Kendricks has become.
“To see someone like Eric come from his background and see him become the guy in the community he is, the guy in the locker room he is, the person he is really speaks volumes about him,” Zimmer said.