Vikings linebackers delivered a tremendous play to start the season and a memorable ending to 2016.
In the season-opening game at Tennessee, Eric Kendricks dropped into coverage but kept focus on Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota. When he saw Everson Griffen applying pressure to Mariota, Kendricks alertly stepped in front of a floater intended for Harry Douglas and returned it 77 yards for a touchdown.
The Vikings first score of the season set the tone for a dynamic defense that returned four turnovers for touchdowns. Minnesota totaled 27 takeaways that tied for seventh in the NFL, and the team committed just 16 giveaways to tie for fourth in the NFL with a net turnover differential of plus-11.
"We know Eric has great return skills," said linebacker Chad Greenway. "Once he caught it, he was gone."
Greenway was part of a different kind of return. The former 2006 draft pick came back for his 11th pro season and first with games inside U.S. Bank Stadium.
Greenway recorded 45 tackles in starting nine of the 16 games he played. He had two tackles for loss and an interception — the 11th of his career, which tied him for fifth-most by a Vikings linebacker. Greenway also ranks fourth in career tackles by a Viking with 1,334 and fourth in starts by a linebacker for Minnesota (144).
The veteran continued to make a mark off the field as well. He was selected as the Vikings Community Man of the Year for a third straight season and fourth time overall.
With a clear view of Greenway's commitments to the community, Kendricks and Anthony Barr also elevated their work in the Twin Cities in their respective second and third years in the pros.
Kendricks led the Vikings in tackles (126 by coaches' tally) for a second straight season and became more comfortable with the various roles he's asked to accomplish in the defense.
Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer said that Kendricks sometimes looked like he had too much coffee during his rookie season, but became less jittery by channeling his energy to yield results.
"He's a lot better," Zimmer said. "You'd have to ask him, but I think he's much more comfortable with everything and seeing things and making checks and calls."
Kendricks agreed, saying, "Throughout the year, I've settled down."
"Last year I was pretty crazy, but I definitely have to keep some of that as part of my game because it's an advantage as well."
Barr started all 16 games for the first time and set a new career high with 20 quarterback hurries. He added 91 tackles, including four for loss and 2.0 sacks. Barr also defended five passes.
Consistent health and availability of Vikings starters led to limited snaps by reserve linebackers, but Audie Cole, Emmanuel Lamur, Edmond Robinson and Kentrell Brothers contributed on special teams.
Kendricks became the second player in Vikings history and first linebacker to record double digits in tackles for loss and passes defended in a season. Kendricks had 10 tackles for loss and 11 passes defended to join defensive back Antoine Winfield (11 tackles for loss and 13 passes defended in 2012).
With Greenway contemplating retirement, the 11-year pro made sure to savor every bit of the Vikings season finale, from parking in the lot and walking into U.S. Bank Stadium, to being the last player that day to take the field through the venue's one-of-a-kind ship with a fire-breathing dragon head. The comfy four-touchdown cushion the Vikings built by the fourth quarter allowed him and teammates to further enjoy the game's waning minutes and a tremendous ovation from the crowd when he was shown on the mammoth HD video boards. Emotion prompted a high kick near midfield.
15 games, 15 starts: 126 tackles (86 solo), 10 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, 4 quarterback hurries, 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery, 1 interception, 1 touchdown, 11 passes defended
16 games, 16 starts: 91 tackles (61 solo), 4 tackles for loss, 2.0 sacks, 20 quarterback hurries, 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery, 5 passes defended
16 games, 9 starts: 45 tackles (28 solo), 2 tackles for loss, 1 interception, 1 pass defended
16 games: 6 tackles (5 solo), 13 special teams tackles
16 games: 4 tackles (3 solo), 11 special teams tackles
12 games: 5 special teams tackles
10 games: 9 special teams tackles
View the top 40 images of Vikings linebackers from the 2016 NFL season.
Vikings Linebackers Totals
272 tackles (183 solo), 16 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, 24 quarterback hurries, 2 forced fumbles, 2 fumble recoveries, 2 interceptions, 17 passes defended, 1 touchdown, 38 special teams tackles