Three Minnesota Vikings players landed on Pro Football Focus’ 2020 top-50 players list last week, but there was one Vikings player noticeably absent, as InsideTheVikings’ Will Ragatz called out on Twitter.
Linebacker Eric Kendricks, 27, is coming off his best season as a pro, earning a Pro Bowl selection and All-Pro honors in 2019. Kendricks was ranked the best linebacker in the NFL at No. 14 overall on PFF’s top 101 players list to conclude the 2019 season.
While PFF’s Sam Monson admitted he thinks Kendricks was a “legitimate” Defensive Player of the Year candidate in 2019, he is skeptical of whether it’s reflective of the rest of his career:
“[Kendricks] led all linebackers with 12 pass breakups, which is also the most we have ever seen from a linebacker over the regular season. In the playoffs, he was briefly responsible for keeping the Vikings in the game, with a pick and a pass breakup against Jimmy Garoppolo and the San Francisco 49ers in the divisional round. But the concern is how much of an outlier this past season was from his previous career baseline. His PFF grade shot up from a consistent level of high 60s to 90.1, and there simply has to be some degree of reservation as to whether a light just went on or whether he was simply able to ride the crest of a wave for 2019 and next year will look more like the player we have seen in the past: good, not great.”
PFF compiles position grades for every player by watching every play of every season since 2006. Safties Anthony Harris, Harrison Smith and defensive end Danielle Hunter made the list for 2020.
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Kendricks in 2019: A Run-Stuffer and Elite in Coverage
Kendricks was regarded as one of the best coverage linebackers in the league last year despite pedestrian season stat totals. Interceptions are a surface-level measure of a coverage defender’s effectiveness, but Monson makes the point that interceptions are “unreliable and transient” for linebackers and are often more reliant on an opposing quarterback’s mistake.
Kendricks’ 14 pass breakups were the most among linebackers last season. His 12 pass breakups through 14 weeks ranked fourth league-wide behind three cornerbacks. Kendricks also led all linebackers in forced incompletion rate at 21.9 percent with two games remaining in the season — also the highest mark PFF has ever seen for a linebacker.
The average passer rating when targeting a linebacker in the NFL is 104.3, more than seven points higher on all other throws. But Kendricks had allowed an 86.8 passer rating through 14 games last season. His allowed completion rate of 56.3 percent is 20 percent better than the average NFL linebacker and on par with San Francisco 49ers Pro Bowl cornerback Richard Sherman’s 55.1 percent.
Kendricks in coverage last season was among the NFL’s best cornerbacks, and he proved to be one of the best run defenders among linebackers as well, Monson wrote:
“He also has a top-five run-defense grade and an average depth of tackle against the run of just 3.46 yards. The two linebackers nominated to the Pro Bowl for the NFC this season instead of Kendricks (Bobby Wagner and Luke Kuechly) have tackle depth averages of 4.88 and 3.62 yards, respectively.”
Kendricks’ Past Blemishes
PFF named Kendricks the Vikings’ most improved player last season after his PFF rating jumped to a 90.4 overall grade from 64.6 in 2018. While he’s remained a steady contributor for the Vikings, his shortcomings have often come in his lack of big plays.
Matt Fries of Climbing the Pocket, a Minnesota Vikings fan podcast, went in-depth into Kendricks’ 2018 season:
“One of Kendricks’ issues in 2018, which was a down year by his standards, was that he wasn’t reacting quickly enough to what was happening in front of him. This is often called instincts, but in reality it’s a combination of preparation and real-time thinking that I would prefer to call mental processing.”
Kendricks was fighting a hamstring issue in 2018 which forced him to miss Minnesota’s final two games. The nagging injury could have contributed to a lag in Kendricks’ first step. But in 2019, Kendricks was seeing the field clearly, according to Fries, leading to him becoming a more disruptive force on the field.
The Star Tribune wrote at the end of last season that Kendricks is becoming a model linebacker as NFL team’s shift to motion and misdirection plays by simply being everywhere on the field. Entering his sixth-year, we’ll see he can cement himself among the league’s elite linebackers after his breakout year.
Follow Trevor Squire on Twitter: @trevordsquire