The 2020 season for Vikings linebackers was a tale of two playmaking Erics, injuries before the season even started and improvisation to finish some games.
Everyone knew what to expect from 2019 All-Pro and Pro Bowler Eric Kendricks. He was well on his way to delivering perhaps his most impressive individual season before suffering a calf injury in practice that caused him to miss the final five games.
In past years, Kendricks had been the base drum at middle linebacker surrounded by experienced talent throughout the defense. With a rebuilt and injury-riddled defensive line in front of the linebackers and rookies often starting at cornerback, Kendricks continued to provide a large part of Minnesota's heart and soul and made well-timed plays that included a career-best three interceptions.
View the best linebacker photos of the 2020 season from Vikings photographers.
Eric Wilson had shown plenty of potential in spot duty through his first three seasons, learning all three of the linebacker positions and being ready to fill in for Kendricks or Anthony Barr, or to play alongside the former UCLA teammates and roommates. Wilson also had been a demon on special teams.
Barr was lost for the season after suffering a torn pectoral on his 16th snap of Week 2. The injury to the 2014 first-round pick created an increased workload for Wilson on defense that also decreased his involvement on special teams. Wilson handled wearing the communication device in his helmet and relaying calls from the sideline to teammates, a role in which Barr has thrived during his career.
Wilson took on even more after Kendricks' injury and wound up finishing as the team leader in tackles, a feat that Kendricks had accomplished in his first five seasons. Kendricks was unable to tie the team record of six consecutive seasons set by Scott Studwell and matched by Chad Greenway.
Similar to the Vikings defensive line, injuries struck the linebackers before the season even started. Ben Gedeon opened camp on the Physically Unable to Perform List and was never cleared to take part in his fourth pro season.
A positive COVID-19 test for Cameron Smith prompted additional tests for the second-year linebacker and revealed a congenital heart defect. He was placed on the Non-Football Illness list in August and underwent surgery. Smith was honored as the team's Ed Block Courage Award recipient in 2020 and provided an update in December.
The Vikings added veterans Hardy Nickerson (in August), Todd Davis and Ryan Connelly (in September).
Fourth-round draft pick Troy Dye played in 11 games and made five starts but also missed five games because of injuries. The Vikings turned to Blake Lynch, an undrafted free agent, to help late in the season.
228 — Wilson (121) and Kendricks (107) combined for 228 of Minnesota's 995 total tackles (league stats).
7 — The Vikings linebackers finished with seven interceptions on the season, which was three more than any other team's group of linebackers. Wilson and Kendricks each recorded three, and Nickerson nabbed his first career pick in Week 16 at New Orleans.
The 2020 season will be remembered years from now for as much that happened off the field as on it. That definitely goes for Kendricks, who had previously seemed genuinely kind but generally shy — maybe even reticent — to express himself. The tragic death of George Floyd in Minneapolis led to Kendricks opening up, exposing himself and becoming vulnerable. He challenged himself and others to do more to advance social justice and ramped up his efforts in the community. He earned the Vikings Community Man of the Year award, which includes a nomination for the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year (scheduled to be announced on Feb. 6). Kendricks didn't boost his involvement to win an award at the team or league level. He did so to make a difference in the lives of others.
Note: All snap counts are on defense unless noted; tackles are league stats
16 games (15 starts); 1,034 snaps (96.3 percent); 121 tackles (62 solo), 3.0 sacks, 8 tackles for loss, 3 interceptions, 8 passes defensed, 1 forced fumble, 2 fumble recoveries
11 games (11 starts); 754 snaps (70.2 percent); 107 tackles (69 solo), 4 tackles for loss, 3 interceptions, 6 passes defensed
11 games (6 starts); 281 snaps (26.2 percent); 34 tackles (15 solo), 1.0 sack, 2 tackles for loss, 2 passes defensed
11 games (5 starts); 202 snaps (18.8 percent); 27 tackles (13 solo), 2 passes defensed
4 games (1 start); 77 snaps (7.2 percent); 11 tackles (7 solo), 1 pass defensed
14 games (1 start); 102 snaps (9.5 percent); 9 tackles (5 solo), 1 interception, 1 pass defensed
2 games (2 starts); 94 snaps (8.8 percent); 6 tackles (6 solo)
14 games (0 starts); 1 snap (0.1 percent); played 198 snaps on special teams and tied for second on the Vikings with six special teams tackles
Wilson and Kendricks each recorded interceptions against Detroit on Nov. 8. Wilson picked off a pass intended for T.J. Hockenson at the Minnesota 12 and returned it 16 yards, and Kendricks claimed another throw by Matthew Stafford toward Hockenson at the goal line. The interceptions ended consecutive trips to the red zone by the Lions in the third quarter and were incredibly helpful in a 34-20 victory.
Rather than the Week 16 loss at New Orleans in which a short-handed Vikings squad allowed seven rushing touchdowns, we'll go with Week 1 at home against Green Bay. Minnesota opened its 60th season in a fan-free venue but had its fullest complement of linebackers. The Packers racked up 522 yards and scored 43 points. While it's true that Kendricks, Barr and Wilson didn't allow a touchdown in their coverage areas, Aaron Rodgers was 7-of-9 passing for 44 yards when targeting a player covered by a Vikings linebacker. According to pro-football-reference.com, Barr blitzed nine times and was credited with one of three quarterback hurries by the Vikings on the day. Rodgers was not sacked and threw four touchdowns for a passer rating of 127.5. Green Bay also rushed for 158 yards.
"He has a mindset that is not only infectious to the people around him but myself included in that — he doesn't let me slide on anything. He gives me that confidence to know I can do it as well. … He's going to hold me accountable, for sure."
— Kendricks on Wilson
"Eric takes on a lot of responsibilities in some of the things he has to do. But it hasn't been a lot more [after Barr's injury], really. He's a good player because, kind of like what I was talking about earlier with the defensive backs, Eric sees things really well. He's got an idea of what the play might be, and then he anticipates. He's one of those guys who's better when he can just go and play football, I think. But he anticipates things so well, and that allows him to play fast and make plays. The interception he made in the end zone was a double move on the tight end and was really a good play."
— Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer on Kendricks after the Lions game in which he and Wilson recorded interceptions
"I think it's a great opportunity. I work really hard to be my best and to be a great player and a great person. I put the work in. What to expect? Really, we'll see what happens. I hope there are — it's a great opportunity to be successful, and if it's here, that's wonderful. I have a lot of, I guess, they're close friends, but they're really family members here, so that would be great if there was an opportunity that made sense for the team and for me. But, yeah, it's a good opportunity."
— Wilson on becoming an unrestricted free agent for the first time
Pressing Questions for 2021
1. Did Wilson's production outprice him?
It's no secret that the Vikings are up against a salary cap that is expected to shrink. Kendricks and Barr are under contract, but Wilson is scheduled to hit unrestricted free agency for the first time after entering the NFL as an undrafted free agent — and after career highs in virtually every defensive category. Will that productivity outprice him for the Vikings? Just two years ago, people thought there was no way that Barr would remain a Viking, but he turned down reportedly more money from the Jets to return to the Vikings.
2. How will Barr and Kendricks bounce back from injuries?
Barr was the first player drafted by the Vikings with Zimmer at the helm. He missed the final month of his promising rookie season but bounced back in impressive fashion with four consecutive Pro Bowl seasons. The fact that Barr's injury occurred in September allows for almost a full season and full offseason for recovery. Kendricks missed the final five games of 2020 after missing just six games in his first five seasons. Both players were instrumental in Minnesota winning division titles in 2015 and 2017, and their return figures to be important for the Vikings effort to return to past dominance on defense.