The Vikings solidified the middle of their defense in 2014 and 2015 when they selected Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks in the first and second round, respectively.
It was a luxury for Minnesota to have its two starting linebackers etched into the lineup for seven consecutive years, but with Barr hitting free agency and Kendricks set to turn 30, it’s probably time to turn an eye to the future.
First, a look at Barr’s situation:
Like Kendricks, Barr is about to turn 30 years old. Coming off back to back years where he dealt with injuries, it’s unclear what his value would be in free agency. It’s certainly not the $67.5 million he signed for back in 2018, but it’s not vet minimum either. Barr’s physical gifts, and the fact that he ranked 28th out of 94 qualified linebackers last season, per Pro Football Focus, should be enough to earn him a deal on the open market that prices him out of the Vikings’ budget. Barr’s three interceptions, 2.5 sacks, two fumble recoveries and 72 tackles were some of his splashier stats in recent years, but getting in bidding wars for aging veterans isn’t usually a go-to move for new GMs.
Facing a tight cap situation, it makes sense for the Vikings to get financially leaner at the linebacker position. With Kendricks already counting over $13 million against the cap, Minnesota may have to find a budget replacement for Barr, as they did for six games last season when Barr was injured.
It seemed like the Vikings anticipated Barr’s swan song when they expedited his contract to expire after 2021. Seeing the writing on the wall that his longtime college and pro teammate was on his way out, Kendricks got emotional talking about Barr in his season-ending press conference.
“It's been a crazy ride me and A.B. have had,” he said, holding back tears. “Shoot, crazy. I'm still processing it right now, you know what I mean? I think that 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, he missed a lot. 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 made me happy, you know what I mean?”
The Barr-Kendricks partnership should be remembered fondly as the years go by, even if Barr’s impact was sometimes questioned. They were anchors during one of the team’s best defensive eras in decades and two of the most well-respected Vikings thanks to their community work. But all good things must come to an end.
Kendricks will ostensibly outlast his counterpart, Mike Zimmer’s first ever draft pick, who in recent years settled behind Kendricks on the linebacker hierarchy.
The former second-round pick put together two of the great linebacker seasons in recent Vikings history in 2019-20, but a dropoff in 2021 leaves Kendricks’ future somewhat murky as well. While Kendricks remained a top 10 coverage linebacker for the third consecutive year, his run defense and tackling dropped off precipitously, which could lead to questions of physical decline.
But until Kendricks becomes a liability in coverage, he still has immense value as a three-down linebacker.
Kendricks has two years left on his contract with almost $6 million of dead cap in 2022 and less than $2 million in dead cap in 2023. The 2022 season may have the feel of a prove-it year for Kendricks, who becomes extremely cuttable if he regresses further under a new coaching staff. If he returns to his 2020 form, he’ll probably have grounds for extension talks.
With Barr all but gone and Kendricks, theoretically, a year from becoming a cap casualty, the Vikings will need to start refilling the cupboard at linebacker.
Unfortunately, the Vikings haven’t produced a plethora of prospects to choose from. Their most successful development project, undrafted free agent Eric Wilson, left in 2021, so the Vikings wound up relying heavily on veteran free agent Nick Vigil while their young draft picks struggled. Troy Dye (fourth round, 2020) scarcely played after a dreadful rookie season, Chazz Surratt (third round, 2021) was effectively given a redshirt year, and Cameron Smith (fifth round, 2019) retired after making a return attempt following heart surgery.
Vigil was serviceable as a third linebacker and made some splashy plays early in the season, but asking him to do much more would be a stretch even if he returned on a cheap contract. Amazingly, the Vikings’ most realistic option to promote from within is Blake Lynch, the 2020 undrafted free agent. Lynch started six games due to Barr’s injuries and did a great Eric Wilson impression, intercepting one pass, logging two sacks and forcing a fumble. Out of 101 linebackers that played 200 or more snaps, Lynch was one of only two not to miss a tackle, yet he sacrificed nothing in coverage, ranking 17th out of that group. Lynch costs only $895K next season before he hits restricted free agency in 2023.
If Lynch can become a surprise starter next season, that’s great for the Vikings, who would then only need to focus on filling the subpackage role. But counting on Lynch’s small sample size isn’t foolproof, and the Vikings will still be needing to find future contributors for down the road. Drafting and developing seems like the most cost effective play, even if the Vikings have a gnarly track record of missing on linebackers later in the draft (i.e., Edmond Robinson, Devante Downs, Kentrell Brothers, etc).
It’s tough to advocate for the Vikings to use a Day 1 pick on a linebacker when they have pressing needs at pass rusher, corner and maybe quarterback. Finding a first-round pick like Micah Parsons or Luke Kuechly that can change your defense is huge for those teams, but some of the league’s top linebackers — Demario Davis, Lavonte David, Darius Leonard, Fred Warner, Kendricks — were found on Day 2.
If indeed Barr moves on, the resources the new regime pours into replacing him will be a good look into their process.
Ultimately, a potential shake-up at linebacker will probably not doom the Vikings in 2022. In a league that prioritizes pass rush and coverage, failure to address defensive end and cornerback would be far more damaging.
Also, with all due respect to Vigil, guys like him do grow on trees. Franchises are constantly churning through third linebackers, leaving the Vikings no shortage of options in free agency if they are looking for a snap-eater.
Not having Barr around may hurt from a sentimental standpoint, but the Vikings should be able to stay competent and save some cash in 2022.