Vikings preview: Can Kendricks maintain All-Pro form at linebacker?

·3 min read

We're taking a look at each Vikings position group as training camp gets underway. Today: Inside linebackers.

Offensive lineQuarterbacksRunning backsDefensive lineDefensive backsSpecial teamsWide receiversTight endsThe Roster

Eric Kendricks, Jordan Hicks, Troy Dye, Brian Asamoah II, William Kwenkeu, Blake Lynch, Chazz Surratt, Ryan Connelly (PUP)

Offseason Moves

In: Hicks (free agent signing), Asamoah (third-round pick), Kwenkeu (undrafted free agent)

Out: Anthony Barr

Outlook

The starters look more than solid while the depth could be less than ideal. Kendricks, a leader in the middle of Mike Zimmer's 4-3 defense the past seven seasons, transitions to Ed Donatell's 3-4 scheme, but trusts his "innate ability to adjust and find the rock," as he puts it. The 30-year-old is too good and still spry enough not to figure it out and be just fine. Hicks, another experienced 30-year-old, was an under-the-radar acquisition that was overshadowed by the signing of edge defender Za'Darius Smith. While Smith offers a ferocious, headline-grabbing pass rush, Hicks' heads-up play in the middle of a 3-4 scheme is vital too, just in a quieter way. The six players behind Kendricks and Hicks have combined for only 16 NFL starts. Dye, a fourth-round draft pick in 2020, has the early edge as the No. 3 inside linebacker. He has six starts in two seasons, including five when the team's linebacker corps was decimated by injuries in 2020.

Top Competition

Asamoah vs. Dye. Dye lined up next to Kendricks when Hicks missed the start of training camp with a non-COVID illness. Asamoah was the next linebacker off the bench. He also had some reps as the only backer in a sub package, and ran with the second unit alongside Lynch. Dye has an edge in experience, but was drafted for a 4-3 scheme run by the previous regime. Asamoah is raw, but was grabbed a round higher — 66th overall — to fit the current regime's transition to the 3-4.

Player to Watch

Hicks. Playing for the Cardinals, Hicks was one of only two players last season to record at least 100 tackles and four sacks. The other guy? Kendricks, who was a second-round pick in 2015. Hicks was taken one round later by Philadelphia. He started all 16 games his second season, leading all NFL linebackers with five interceptions. Injuries cost him 13 of 32 games the next two seasons, leading to him ending up in Arizona in 2019. Since then, he hasn't missed a game. He ranked third in the league with a career-high 150 tackles in 2019. Known for his intelligence and calm demeanor, Hicks was named a team captain his last two years in Arizona.

One Big Question

Can Kendricks return to All-Pro form in a new scheme? Kendricks knew Zimmer's defense as well as Zim did. It allowed him to play extremely fast and with the kind of spot-on anticipation that sometimes made him impossible to block. Kendricks was a no-brainer first-team All-Pro in 2019 and was rocketing toward a second straight first-team honor when a calf injury ended his season after 11 games in 2020. Until that point, Zimmer's injury-riddled team was still in the playoff hunt in large part because of Kendricks. Once he went down as well, Zimmer's defense was embarrassed. Kendricks had led the team in tackles his first five seasons before finishing second in 2020. He returned to the top with a career-high 143 stops last season. He also set the franchise career record for most games as the team's leading tackler (59). If he stays healthy and the Vikings return to the playoffs, Kendricks is an All-Pro contender in whatever schemes Donatell throws at him.