There are plenty of players in the draft that require some development before they are going to see much playing time, but UCLA linebacker Eric Kendricks isn’t one of them. Even first-round picks often require some seasoning before NFL coaches will trust them, yet a player like Kendricks is on the first-round bubble.
Regardless of draft position, Kendricks might be one of the best bets in the draft to make an instant impact at the next level. NFL front offices just don’t value off-the-ball linebackers highly despite the fact that they routinely contribute as rookies.
Smart offenses often attack the bad ones in coverage or with play action. The best ones are three-down players who wear the green dot on their helmets—the so-called quarterbacks of the defense. Kendricks fits the mold.
“He plays with intelligence and passion. Plus, he runs well for a big ILB who thumps. Kiko Alonso is a good comparison for him,” an AFC West scout said about Kendricks back in November, per NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah.
Like Alonso, Kendricks can make a big impact as a rookie. Kendricks could follow in the footsteps of players like C.J. Mosley, Lavonte David and Luke Kuechly. All have found success as rookies in the NFL.
Pedigree and Preparation
Perhaps no player is a better comparison for Kendricks than his older brother, Philadelphia Eagles linebacker Mychal Kendricks. The NFL loves bloodlines, and Mychal was one of the best off-the-ball linebackers in the league last year after struggling for his first two seasons in the league.
At 6’0” and 240 pounds, Mychal was a combine star, running the 40-yard dash in 4.47 seconds. Eric hasn’t matched his older brother’s explosive numbers, but he’s also dealing with a nagging hamstring injury.
"If you’ve got a successful family member in the league, it’s always the case that’s made. It always helps,” said NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah, via NFL.com’s Chase Goodbread. “But there is always pushback on that, too. If you don’t like the guy, I’ve been in a draft room where someone said, ‘This guy’s a lot more Ozzie Canseco than Jose Canseco.’”
The two brothers both have similar builds, but that doesn’t make them exactly the same prospect. The younger Kendricks is a little smaller and less athletic, but he’s a more polished version of his older brother when he was coming out.
"As an older brother it’s natural for him to look up to me,” Mychal Kendricks told Goodbread. “But little does he know that I actually look up to him in certain aspects of life and the game.”
Mychal needed time to become an impact NFL player that Eric won’t need. That doesn’t mean the younger brother is a finished product, but he’ll be able to draw from his older brother’s NFL experience.
“We were underdogs growing up in Fresno. We’d been overlooked because of our size or whatever,” Eric said. “He’s always put that confidence in me at times when I may not have had it.”
Mychal helped guide his younger brother through his prep days growing up in Fresno, California, and his college experience at UCLA. There’s no reason to think Mychal won’t help his younger brother in the pros.
How to prepare like an NFL linebacker is something the younger brother seems to understand. He’s been guided by his brother, UCLA head coach Jim Mora Jr. and former San Francisco 49ers linebacker Jeff Ulbrich, who coached linebackers for UCLA last year and is now with the Atlanta Falcons.
“The offense is one step ahead already because they’re going against a defense that has no idea what they’re about the run,” Kendricks said, via Tyler Dunne of the Milwaukee-Wisconsin Journal Sentinel, "If you have an idea of what they’re about to run, it puts you on an equal playing level.”
Whatever team drafts Kendricks will be very comfortable heaping a mental load on the former Bruin. To find a prospect who can handle the mental and physical toll that playing linebacker in the NFL requires is actually quite rare.
“He had his best season last year with 149 tackles with four sacks and three interceptions – this guy is a game-changer,” said NFL Media analyst Curtis Conway, via Goodbread. “He is an impact player right now, and his IQ is off the charts.”
Precognition and Production
As we know, a great football IQ isn’t all there is to it. It helps, but many top quarterback prospects have had great football IQs and busted because they couldn’t translate it into production on the field. Even more important than the preparation is the ability to marry preparation with the physical side of the game.
The best can combine recognition and instincts to form a sort of precognition on the football field. Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning would be a shining example of this on the offensive side of the ball, but the same holds true for defensive players.
Kendricks’ instincts are a big reason why he’ll find early success in the NFL. He’s particularly good in coverage, which is a skill that should be highly coveted by NFL teams.
Against Virginia, not only was Kendricks making tackles sideline-to-sideline in the running game, but he was also making tackles in the passing game. Kendricks was directly responsible for 14 of the 21 defensive points UCLA scored as he forced a fumble and returned an interception.
The interception was a great example of Kendricks’ instincts and preparation melding on the field. With the running back leaking out into the flat, Kendricks follows him, keeps his eyes on the quarterback and undercuts the route to make the big play:
“I do a lot of things I can’t really explain,” Kendricks told Dunne. “I just do it naturally.”
Kendricks’ instincts really set him apart from other prospects at his position. In a league that will change looks constantly to try to confuse opponents from week-to-week and play-to-play, the ability of a player to translate preparation into production is art in motion. Come Sundays this fall, whatever team drafts Kendricks won’t hesitate to give him the brush.
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