For the linebacker corps of the Minnesota Vikings, 2016 was a tale of players going in opposite directions. Anthony Barr, who had an outstanding 2015 season and was thought to be on the cusp of being a premier NFL defender, completely fell off the map for reasons that nobody is quite sure of (though I suspect injury played a significant role).
On the other hand, his teammate. . .both in college and the NFL. . .Eric Kendricks made a huge leap forward in his sophomore campaign, according to the folks from Pro Football Focus. PFF put together their list of the ten most improved second-year players, and Kendricks came in at #6.
2015 overall grade: 48.3
2016 overall grade: 80.3
Much like Jake Ryan, Kendrick’s strong sophomore season was centered on his much-improved pass-coverage skills, which was his strength as a prospect coming out of UCLA. He allowed an average of 8.9 yards per catch and a passer rating of 85.3, compared to figures of 11.6 yards and a 110.8 rating in his rookie year. He also emerged as a more effective playmaker, increasing his 2015 tally of two pass defenses to six in 2016, as well as ranking seventh among inside linebackers with a run-stop percentage of 10.2. Vikings fans should be encouraged by his year-on-year grade improvement from 48.3 to 80.3, and will hope for another step forward in year three.
The team is certainly going to be looking for help at the linebacker position, with the possible retirement of Chad Greenway and a lot of question marks behind Barr and Kendricks at the position. But with teams playing more and more nickel defense, the third linebacker spot for the Vikings (or any other team) is going to become a smaller and smaller role. With Kendricks emerging both in coverage and against the run, he’s on the way to becoming the leader of the linebacker group for Minnesota.
If Barr can turn things around in 2017 and play to the level that we’ve seen that he’s capable of playing to, it would do wonders for a Minnesota defense that should once again be among the NFL’s best.