EAGAN, Minn. — Vikings linebackers Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr thought they had played as teammates for the final time back in 2013 as Barr was leaving UCLA for the NFL Draft.
Minnesota tabbed Barr in the first round in 2014 and Kendricks in the second round the following year, reuniting the former college roommates.
The duo had a similar feeling when Barr appeared to be heading to the New York Jets via free agency during the spring of 2019 before Barr changed his mind and opted to return to Minnesota.
But now, signs are pointing to Barr's departure this year during free agency. Based on his social media post before Minnesota's season finale and comments during a media session after it, Barr believes he's worn Purple for the final time.
"Bittersweet to end this way, but it kinda is what it is, you know? I've been doing it long enough to understand what comes next, keep things in perspective, just be ready for whatever happens in the future," Barr said after recording 2.0 sacks against the Bears. "I've been very thankful to be part of this organization. … It's been a pleasure being a Viking for the last eight years. I'm not too sure what the future holds, but whatever it is, I'll always have a special place in my heart for Minnesota and even y'all (media members)."
Kendricks was quarantined on the Reserve/COVID-19 list for the final game, but he did participate in a virtual media session after the season ended. He became highly emotional when explaining their relationship.
"I obviously knew what the situation kinda was, in a sense, but I never really thought about it until very, very, very recently. Like, last couple weeks, for sure. It's been a crazy ride me and AB have had," Kendricks said. "Shoot, crazy. I'm still processing it right now, you know what I mean?"
After pausing to compose himself, Kendricks continued, "I think what was really cool this year was — obviously last year he was hurt, that was upsetting. He came in this year and he was down again at the beginning of the year. … It hurt me to see him hurt like that, especially with all the work he's put in. But the last remainder of the season, he played so strong and proved that he's an elite player in this league. It just — it made me happy, you know what I mean? Very happy. Especially yesterday, how he closed out. That's my guy."
Most conversations about Vikings linebackers since 2015 (and particularly after Chad Greenway's retirement at the end of the 2016 season) have started and ended with the Barr-Kendricks duo, so this will be another major change for a team that is conducting interviews for a new general manager and head coach.
Notable Number: 7
Vikings linebackers combined to record seven of Minnesota's 16 interceptions on the season.
Barr led the way with a career-best three, and Kendricks nabbed two. Nick Vigil recorded the third of his career in just his second Vikings game, and Blake Lynch closed his second pro season with his first career interception.
Vigil turned his pick into points, returning the ball 38 yards for a score at Arizona.
In Week 5, Kendricks welcomed Barr back to the field for the first time since September 2020 and nabbed a sneaky great interception of Jared Goff on a ball thrown in the red zone. Kendricks crouched behind linemen and instinctually read the play before one-handing the pass. He celebrated by leading a few teammates down the field with a high-hurdle skip.
Barr was named the 2021 Vikings Community Man of the Year and the team's nominee for the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award. He was surprised with the news when family members and single-parent families from the Jeremiah Program were invited to TCO Stadium for a reveal. Kendricks, the year's previous selection for the awards, asked if he could join in for the announcement and beamed as Barr processed the news. It was a helmet-off moment that I'll always appreciate covering and that Vikings Entertainment Network captured to share with others. Hopefully it boosts the appreciation and understanding that these guys are more than just exceptional athletes.
143 tackles (81 solo), 5.0 sacks, 8 tackles for loss, 2 interceptions, 4 passes defensed and 1 fumble recovery; started all 15 games he played; on field for 1,032 of Minnesota's 1,208 defensive snaps (85.4 percent)
72 tackles (38 solo), 2.5 sacks, 3 tackles for loss, 3 interceptions, 5 passes defensed, 2 fumble recoveries; started all 11 games he played; on field for 784 defensive snaps (64.9 percent)
83 tackles (44 solo), 1.0 sack, 4 tackles for loss, 1 interception, 1 pass defensed, 38-yard interception return touchdown; started 12 of 16 games he played; on field for 719 defensive snaps (59.5 percent)
30 tackles (19 solo), 2.0 sacks, 1 tackle for loss, 1 interception, 2 passes defensed, 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery; started 6 of 16 games he played; on field for 218 defensive snaps and 342 special teams snaps
9 tackles (3 solo), 12 special teams tackles; started 1 of 17 games he played; on field for 54 defensive snaps and 326 special teams snaps
Appeared in 12 games — exclusively on special teams — before a season-ending injury; recorded 3 tackles on 216 special teams snaps
Appeared in 9 games — exclusively on special teams — and did not record any statistics on 98 snaps
Appeared in 2 games — exclusively on special teams — and did not record any statistics on 19 snaps
The highest highs
1. LBs love LA
A native of Fresno, California, Kendricks celebrated his return to his college hometown with an impressive diving interception of a pass Justin Herbert intended for Keenan Allen at the Chargers 31-yard line.
Barr, who was unable to play at that game, made the most of a game against the Rams, recording two interceptions on Matthew Stafford. Unfortunately, Minnesota only netted a field goal after Barr's first interception gave the offense the ball at the Los Angeles 11. The Vikings did score a touchdown after the second pick to make it 13-10 Rams in the third quarter.
Lynch recorded a trifecta (sack, forced fumble and fumble recovery) in one swipe of his arm to give Minnesota the ball at the Detroit 19 with 4:01 left in the game. The Vikings responded with a touchdown drive for a 27-23 lead with 1:50 remaining.
Like so much of the 2021 season's ups and downs, however, the Vikings defense couldn't make a stop on the following series and allowed the game-winning touchdown by Goff on the game's final play.
The lowest low
San Francisco gets going
The 49ers offense challenges linebackers to say the least, and San Francisco was able to get its run game going and build off that success for passing gains.
RB Elijah Mitchell rushed 27 times for 133 yards and a score, and WR Deebo Samuel added 66 yards and two scores on the ground against Minnesota. Samuel's day included scoring runs of 20 and 3 yards, as well as a 49-yard scamper on the third play of the second half after he avoided a tackle attempt by Vigil in the backfield.
The 49ers seemed to be able to minimize the potential damage by Barr and Kendricks with their scheme, and Jimmy Garoppolo was able to frequent the middle of the field with passes.
What was worse? One loss against a tough foe turned into another loss against a team Minnesota was expected to defeat the following week. Barr and Kendricks suffered injuries that day that knocked them both out the following week at Detroit.
2 pressing questions for 2022
1.What will be the approach to replenishing the position?
Kendricks is signed through 2023 and is likely to continue to be central to Minnesota's approach on defense.
As explained earlier, Barr is expecting that he will be playing elsewhere next season. Vigil was quite an underrated signing last year, but he's also scheduled to become a free agent. The new leadership will need to evaluate how he could fit into their scheme. For what it's worth, Vigil handled the relaying of calls from the sideline when Barr was unavailable.
If Barr can't be retained, perhaps Vigil can, and the group can be bolstered in free agency, through the draft, or both.
2. How will young LBs transition on the fly?
Lynch has shown some promise after entering the NFL as an undrafted rookie in 2020. Dye played a lot on defense during the preseason but was mainly used on special teams in the regular season.
Connelly has been a core special teamer since joining his home-state squad. Surratt, a third-round pick in 2021 seemed to still be adjusting to defense after beginning his college career as a QB. Borland likely benefited from spending most of the year on the practice squad.
The interesting part will be which young linebackers can best adjust to changes implemented by the new head coach.