Linebacker Eric Kendricks was named Minnesota Vikings Defensive Player of the Year last season despite playing in only 11 games.
It’s true that there weren’t many viable candidates for the award on a team that ranked 29th in the NFL in scoring defense and 27th in total defense, but Kendricks was impressive in the games he did play. He was rated as the league’s second-best linebacker by Pro Football Focus before a calf injury suffered in warmups Dec. 6 against Jacksonville at U.S. Bank Stadium sidelined him for the final five games.
“I felt like I was having one of the best seasons of my career,” Kendricks said of when he got hurt at the end of his sixth NFL season.
Kendricks was coming off a 2019 season in which he made his first Pro Bowl and became just the second linebacker in team history, following Matt Blair in 1980, to be named first-team all-pro. Kendricks didn’t earn either of those accolades last year because of the playing time he missed and the Vikings finishing 7-9. Minnesota went without a Pro Bowl selection on defense for the first time since 2014.
Kendricks spoke to the media this week during a mandatory minicamp for the first time since the first significant injury of his NFL career seven months ago. He called it “frustrating” but said he has healed well.
“Just not being there and being on the sideline was obviously disappointing,” he said. “But we’ve been rehabbing, been recovering and feeling good, so I’m looking forward to this upcoming season.”
The 29-year-old middle linebacker was greatly missed in the games he missed to close the season. The Vikings gave up an average of 34 points and went 2-3 in those games.
Kendricks, though, was back on the field for spring drills, which concluded Wednesday. And his presence was noticeable.
“Eric is obviously an all-pro, and he practices that way,” offensive coordinator Klint Kubiak said. “He’s that kind of a teammate, and when he’s in there, he affects our offense in a negative way because he’s always around the ball. He can call out plays, he’s practiced against us so much, and when we try to play-action fake him, he knows the smallest tells and gets into coverage lightning fast. He’s just a mad dog out there, so it’s great to see him. I can’t wait to get him on the field on Sundays.”
Kendricks won’t be the only notable Vikings linebacker back this season from injury. Anthony Barr, a four-time Pro Bowl selection, has returned after missing the final 14 games because of shoulder surgery.
Kendricks and Barr were roommates and teammates at UCLA until Barr left for the NFL, taken by Minnesota in the first round of the 2014 draft. Kendricks rejoined him a year later when the Vikings picked him up in the second round of the 2015 draft.
“This is our 11th year playing football essentially together as far as UCLA plus Vikings, so it’s pretty cool,” Kendricks said. “It’s been a pretty crazy journey. Last year, obviously we were without him and we missed him. … So I’m excited to continue this journey with him.”
Two other key Vikings defenders will return after missing playing time in 2020. Two-time Pro Bowl defensive end Danielle Hunter is back after sitting out all season because of a neck injury, and nose tackle Michael Pierce has returned after opting out of the season due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Also, the Vikings have added a number of key defensive players, including linemen Dalvin Tomlinson, Sheldon Richardson and Stephen Weatherly, and defensive backs Patrick Peterson, Bashaud Breeland, Mackensie Alexander and Xavier Woods. That has made Kendricks even more excited about 2021.
“It’s big time,” Kendricks said. “We’re trying to get it done. We’re trying to put the pieces together and just having everybody here, and it’s been good. It’s been great.”