Eric Kendricks’ Vikings Future in Question Under New Defensive Direction

Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr

Getty Vikings linebacker Eric Kendricks could have a tough time adjusting to a 3-4 defensive scheme.

The Minnesota Vikings are readying to undergo a transformation that could leave many of the team’s defensive stars in limbo.

Minnesota ran a 4-3 defensive scheme, consisting of our four defensive linemen and three linebackers, under Mike Zimmer for the past eight seasons. Newly hired head coach Kevin O’Connell tasked his defensive coordinator Ed Donatell to shift the unit to a 3-4 defensive scheme, three linemen prioritized to stop the run while linebackers rush the passer.

It could be a beneficial transition for many players on defense.

However, one contributor could be the odd-man-out in the new system, former Vikings linebacker Ben Leber suggested.

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Leber: New Defense Will ‘Enhance’ Eric Kendricks’ Weaknesses

Talking with Paul Allen on KFAN earlier this month, Leber suggested Eric Kendricks, one of the league’s top linebackers across his seven-year career, including earning Pro Bowl and All-Pro honors in 2019, may struggle in the new defense.

Kendricks is coming off a 2021 campaign where he posted a career-high 143 combined tackles and five sacks. However, Kendricks, undersized at 6-feet, thrived with a defensive front that strived to prevent offensive linemen from getting to the second level and blocking linebackers.

Kendricks flies around the field in that system, but in a 3-4 scheme, he’ll likely have to shed blocks from more linemen and doesn’t have the arm length to thrive in that role, Leber said.

Here’s a full transcript of Leber’s appraisal of Kendricks’ future:

He’s not an outside guy, yeah. That’s the direction I’m going. I gotta be careful here because I think he’s such a good player, he’s such a good athlete and he has such amazing instincts. To say that he can’t make the transition, I think, is foolish. I think it’s going to be difficult for him, though. It’s a defense, in my mind, that doesn’t speak to his specific skillset and I think it’s going to enhance the weaknesses that he has.

You are (as an inside LB in a 3-4 defense) taking on a fair amount of more blockers. We’re not talking fullbacks and tight ends. We’re talking guards and tackles. That is not his strong point. He does not have long arms. He’s not a thumper when it comes to getting off blocks. It doesn’t come natural for him to play off blocks and you do have to two-gap a lot as an inside linebacker (in a 3-4 scheme).

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Kendricks is likely far down on the list of potential cap casualties this offseason, but for measure, cutting or trading the 30-year-old linebacker would result in $7.5 million in cap savings. He’s been too valuable of an asset to part ways with him, leading to the more likely option that Donatell gets creative with using Kendricks.

There’s still a role as a middle linebacker in the 3-4 base scheme, which Kendricks played in college. However, Kendricks could struggle at the NFL due to his size, especially if the defensive front is not reinforced after allowing the seventh-most rushing yards per game (130.7) last season.


Other Position Changes

The most significant change of position on the Vikings defense could be Danielle Hunter becoming an outside linebacker in Donatell’s scheme. Hunter has similar measurables in size, speed and agility with 3-4 linebacker and Defensive Player of the Year T.J. Watt, who tied the NFL record for most sacks in a season (22.5) in 2021.

If he’s re-signed this offseason, Anthony Barr could be Hunter’s running mate opposite of him on the right side of the defensive line. Barr was a standup, outside edge rusher in college, where he built a reputation as one of college football’s top draft prospects, leading to his selection at No. 9 overall in 2014.

Many of the Vikings’ defensive ends will undergo a similar transition as Hunter and are athletic enough to shift to a role where they could drop into coverage more often.

Harrison Smith could also see more time in the box as a linebacker/strong safety while second-year player Camryn Bynum could play free safety and slot cornerback, the position he played in college.

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