This is a glorious time of the year for football fans. The draft is rapidly approaching, we've all talked ourselves into why "our" team's free agency moves were the best free agency moves, and we're a long way from preseason football disappointing us with its lack of "oomph." What a great time to be alive.
There are still roughly eleventy billion players I'd like to evaluate. There's absolutely no way we'll get to them. But I'm going to give it my best shot, starting with a guy I'd been meaning to look at for awhile: linebacker Eric Kendricks.
Many Chiefs fans have been beating the "draft Eric Kendricks" drum for quite some time, so he's not an unfamiliar name around these parts. But prior to today I'd never gotten around to viewing any of his available film (three total videos via Draft Breakdown). Now I've gone and watched the two games I had access two in 2014 (I'm not going to worry about who Kendricks was in 2012, so I'm ignoring that game), and I'm ready to join the crowd of people who are saying, "Whoa, that kid can play."
Because whoa, that kid can play.
I mean, that kid can really, really, really play. So much so, in fact, that this is mostly going to be an entire article gushing over what he does well. I'll address the concerns some have with him (none of which I've seen have to do with his play, really) at the end of the column, but this is a rave. So grab a glowstick and let's talk about Eric Kendricks, inside linebacker prospect.
This play contains almost everything there is to love about Kendricks as a potential inside linebacker for the Chiefs. He's the guy who makes the tackle, by the way. Number 6. I try to help.
Instincts: Recognizes the play action for what it is and doesn't get sucked up too far.
Intelligence: Immediately proceeds to his assignment, covering the TE coming from the other wide of the line into the flat. That's not nearly as easy as it sounds, and a lot of LBs freeze for a second here.
Speed: Easily closes the distance between himself and the receiver and provides no window to throw to safely for the quarterback.
Instincts AND Intelligence AGAIN: Recognizes exactly when the play switches from a pass to a run, leaving the receiver at the perfect moment (when it's too late for the quarterback to make the throw).
Fundamentals: Breaks down and sets himself perfectly, not giving the quarterback any momentum to use against him. He also wraps up well, something that's consistent with Kendricks.
Aggressiveness: He could just wrap and tackle, but instead DRIVES the QB into the ground. Which is just a lot of fun to watch.
Again, this play sums up a lot of what you'll see when you examine Kendricks on film.
First, let's talk about the physical side of things. Kendricks is a very good athlete who closes on the ball extremely quickly. While his 40 time at the combine wasn't blazing fast (4.61 seconds), anyone who watches film can see he's got very good playing speed.
That speed really shows up in coverage, whether he's asked to play in zone or man. Kendricks is able to drop back into zone coverage (where he nearly always does a good job getting appropriate depth) and then move up to contain short passes made beneath the zone for minimal gains.On multiple plays I watched Kendricks drop back on third and long, then rush to the ball when the QB tried to dump it underneath. Because Kendricks closes so quickly and wraps up well, he was consistently able to stop receivers well shy of the first down in that situation.
Look how easily he's able to mirror the running back's movement here and get a pick.
Now, Kendricks didn't have to stick with the back for long there, but there are plenty of other snaps where he ran down the field with running backs with no trouble whatsoever. He's got exceptional game speed.
Of course, speed was only half the battle there. Kendricks' comfort in coverage also has a lot to do with football IQ. Kendricks understands how to stick with receivers and where to be when he drops into zone. That's wildly unusual for an inside linebacker coming out of college (and in the NFL, frankly) who is also solid against the run. Teams often have to choose between solid run defenders and guys who can drop into coverage. Guys who can do both are the coveted "three down linebackers." Kendricks absolutely is a three down linebacker.
And really, that football IQ is what stands out the most with Kendricks. Yes, we can talk about the fact that he plays stronger than his weight suggests (he does). We could talk about his ridiculous burst closing on the ball (definitely there). But what sets Kendricks apart is that he's almost always in the right place. He almost always takes proper angles. He rarely misdiagnoses plays. He just GETS football.
That's a big part of why Kendricks appears to close so fast on ball carriers. It's not just a matter of raw speed. There are plenty of really athletic linebackers in college. What separates him is that he knows WHERE to run. He knows what gap to fill. He knows the angles to take. And he sees where the ball is going to the point that he's "reading and reacting" rather than "reading THEN reacting" (a distinction I totally made up but think sounds really deep).
Kendricks rarely fills the wrong gap, an extremely important feature for an inside linebacker. He also doesn't hesitate before going downhill toward the ball. Both of those traits were rare in the Chiefs ILBs last season after Derrick Johnson went down with an injury. Perhaps Josh Mauga will improve this next season, but Kendricks already demonstrates, from what I can tell in a few games, a superior ability to diagnose where the run is going and meet the ball carrier to anything Mauga did last season.
Read, run, wrap up. If I were to pick the "big three" essential qualities for a good inside linebacker, those would be it. He's gotta be able to read offenses and diagnose plays quickly. He needs to be fast enough for his body to go where his mind tells him the play is going. And he's gotta be able to tackle. Kendricks has those three qualities in spades. That makes him a very good prospect. The extra stuff, like his seeming love for contact and his head-and-shoulders-above-most-other ILBs ability in coverage, make him an exceptional one.
The vast majority of people I've seen knocking Kendricks as a pick for the Chiefs have two reasons: size and position. A lot of people point to Kendricks's weight (232 pounds at the combine) and say he's too small.
The size issue doesn't bother me. Yes, Kendricks is a little light at 232 opunds. However, he's also a little on the short side, standing six feet even. Which means that even though he's "light," he's not at all slender and is actually built very stout. He also plays stronger than his size would indicate and showed the willingness to be the guy to "eat up" blockers on many more than one occasion (as far as the "thumper" role goes, don't try to tell me coaches don't want two three down ILBs. They do. It's just rare to be able to find them).
Kendricks did get washed out occasionally by blockers, and one could try and blame that on his size, but the simple fact is it happened to Kendricks way less than it does to many other (and bigger) linebackers. Kendricks is able to avoid blockers with his athleticism and awareness. He also shows some ability to shed blockers. While it's not as strong as other aspects of his game, it's not nonexistent the way you'd expect from a guy who just isn't big enough.
The other knock, as I'd said, is the position Kendricks plays. People correctly point out that inside linebacker isn't a premium position in today's NFL, and also correctly point out that the Chiefs "other" ILB (the guy not named DJ) has played only half the snaps on defense the last several years. Everyone knows Bob Sutton loves his three safety sets. So isn't an ILB a luxury pick at this point?
Well, that's when it becomes chicken or egg. Was Sutton pulling his SILB because he doesn't like having them out there the field on third down, or was Sutton FORCED to pull his SILB because the guys he had were horrifyingly bad in coverage and thus an immense liability on third down? If it's the latter, Kendricks solves that problem.
The Chiefs run defense has, for the last several years, been pretty solid in the base defense (well, except last year, once DJ and DeVito and Berry were all on the sideline. But that's obviously a separate issue). The problems came for the Chiefs on long second downs and intermediate-to-long third downs. The Chiefs would pull both a defensive lineman and the ILB not named DJ and replace them with secondary players. And the run defense would get demolished if the opponent went that route.
Imagine a world where the Chiefs didn't HAVE to pull their SILB off the field on third down. The run defense stays more stout but the pass defense doesn't suffer. Theoretically, Sutton could use a three safety lineup with all four linebackers still on the field if he were so inclined. Basically, it provides options, whereas the personnel the Chiefs previously had REMOVED options on third down.
But that's all theoretical. What I know is that the one major chink in the Chiefs defensive armor last year was run defense. Getting DJ and DeVito back will be huge. But adding Kendricks could make an already very tough defense impossible to deal with. He's a true three down ILB who could help both against the run and the pass. I won't be a bit upset if the Chiefs went his way in the first round.
Read, run, wrap.