EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — The Vikings first-team defense retained almost complete continuity from its 2016 squad.
That includes linebacker Eric Kendricks right in the middle of it.
Kendricks has started 25 of 29 games played at middle linebacker, but some thought that he might move to weakside linebacker after the retirement of Chad Greenway.
Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer, however, said he initially put Kendricks in the middle in 2015 because the Vikings had Greenway at weakside and Anthony Barr on the strong side. Zimmer said that Kendricks has done so well in the role that the player and coach want him to remain at MLB.
"Well, we had Chad [Greenway] before, and I figured to get the best three on the field that was the best way to go," Zimmer said. "This year, Kendricks played so well a year ago, he's so comfortable doing that position. I talked to him a little bit, he didn't really want to move, and I didn't really want to move him."
Kendricks has led the Vikings in tackles (105 and 126) in both of his seasons, becoming the first rookie to lead a Minnesota team since Rip Hawkins in the inaugural 1961 season. He followed his debut campaign by becoming the second player in franchise history to post 10-plus tackles for loss (10) and pass breakups (11) in a season, joining Antoine Winfield.
The UCLA product opened last season with a 77-yard interception return for a touchdown.
"He's just more comfortable in everything he does," Zimmer said. "I think the guys really respect him because he's a playmaker. He plays real hard. He's a tough kid. As far as the leadership part, Eric to me is who he is. He's going to lead by example, he gets the calls, he gets the calls out. He takes accountability for his actions." * *
Here are four other topics addressed by Zimmer on Thursday:
1. Not easy with Brees-y
Saints quarterback Drew Brees ranks third in NFL history with 66,111 passing yards and is one of the most accurate passers in the game. What makes Brees even tougher is the fact that he can maintain accuracy and complete multiple types of throws at different spots in the pocket. He also delivers the ball quickly.
The talent has been noticed by Zimmer, who built his career as a defensive backs coach and defensive coordinator.
"He's awfully good, he's really good," Zimmer said. "Extremely accurate, I think one of the things, he's got an unbelievable arm, too. One of the things that sets him apart, I think, is he's so quick getting rid of the football, knowing where to go to the different spots. He really is a Hall of Fame-kind of quarterback. Obviously, one of the best in the NFL and one of the best that's ever played."
2. Much more familiar
The Vikings acquired quarterback Kyle Rudolph on Sept. 3, 2016, and he sat out last season's opener as he tried to become more familiar with the Vikings offense. Bradford started the final 15 games of the season, threw for a career-best 3,877 yards and broke Brees' single-season completion percentage record.
A full offseason has enabled the coach and quarterback to learn more about each other. Zimmer was asked what he knows about Bradford that he didn't know back then.
"Well, he's really knowledgeable. Maybe some of the things I know more now are personal things," Zimmer said. "Things that are going on, things he likes to do outside of football, that stuff. As far as football-wise, most of the times our conversations are about football. A lot of times, he asks what I see. I ask him about what did he see there, [and tell him to] be alert for this or that."
3. Defender production can depend on opponent plan
Barr made multiple "splash" plays in his first two seasons that included a forced fumble, recovery and 27-yard return for a touchdown and walk-off winner at Tampa Bay to end his eighth pro game. Barr's numbers dipped a little in 2016, but Zimmer said that can be a function for how opponents avoid certain Vikings defenders week-to-week.
"A lot of times that depends on the game. It's like, I expect Everson [Griffen] to be a playmaker all the time, but if they put two or three guys on him, things happen.
"It's the same thing with Barr," Zimmer continued. "But yeah, I think he's going to have a good year. He's worked really hard this offseason. He's improved on a lot of things that he needed to improve on. But, each game is going to be different based on what other teams decide they want to do. Then we have to attack in other ways."
4. Never too early for help from fans
The start time of Monday's game is 6:10 p.m. (CT) since it is the first part of a doubleheader on ESPN.
Zimmer opened his presser by noting that the Vikings want help from fans to create a noisy environment when the Saints offense is on the field because Brees does a great deal of communicating at the line of scrimmage.
"We're getting ready and excited to prepare for New Orleans on Monday night," Zimmer said. "It's going to be important that our crowd helps us out, [is] loud. They've got a fast-break offense. He does a lot of things at the line of scrimmage, so hopefully [our crowd] will start tailgating early because the game's at 6 this week, so we've got to get going and get ready to get U.S. Bank Stadium rocking."