2015 NFL Draft Preview: LB Eric Kendricks
The Sports Quotient’s annual Draft Preview series is back. Over the course of the ten weeks leading up to the 2015 NFL Draft, we analyze the top NFL prospects at each position. This sixth week, the focus is on linebackers. Because many college defensive ends transition to linebacker in the NFL, we would like to clarify that all players being analyzed this week played linebacker in college. Today's prospect is Eric Kendricks out of UCLA.
Kendricks redshirted his first year at UCLA. In his first season on the field, he played in all 14 games and finished 2nd on the team with 76 tackles. Kendricks led UCLA with 150 tackles in his sophomore season, and he also added two fumble return touchdowns, a blocked punt, and an interception. He was named Honorable Mention All-Pac-12 by the coaches. Kendricks again led the Bruins in tackles in his junior season and again was named Honorable Mention All-Pac-12. Kendricks took his game to new heights in his senior season. He won the Butkus Award (for the Nation's Best Linebacker) and was awarded 1st- or 2nd-Team All-American honors by almost every media outlet.
Kendricks started 42 games in college and finished his career as the leading tackler in UCLA history. He led the Bruins in tackles in each of his last three season and led the nation in solo tackles in two of his last three seasons.
Kendricks's proficiency as a tackler may lead some to underestimate his athletic ability. To put Kendricks's movement skills in perspective, I will compare him to Washington LB Shaq Thompson. Thompson is widely heralded as an exceptional athlete for a linebacker; he also played running back in college. Interestingly enough, Kendricks ran a faster 40-yard dash and had a better vertical and broad jump than Thompson at the combine.
Kendricks's athleticism allows him to excel in coverage which is becoming increasingly more important in the NFL as more teams transition to pass-dominant offenses. While many linebackers can tackle, sometimes they are a liability in coverage (or vice-versa); Kendricks, however, is a complete linebacker. His impressive coverage skills are on display in the clip below.
His experience in college will allow him to play early in the NFL—something I always like to see in rookies. When players are drafted, they are only under contract on cheap rookie deals for four seasons, with a team option for a fifth, more expensive season. Drafting a player who takes time to develop before making an impact is wasting time on the rookie deal which ultimately makes that player less valuable.
Kendricks will be able to play right away and be an upgrade for most teams from day one.
Size is the biggest knock against Kendricks. At 6'0 - 230 pounds, he is undersized for an NFL linebacker; this is, however, the only major flaw in his game I have found to this point. He did redshirt which is something I never like to see, but his performance as a sophomore helps ease that concern.
I have seen a trend in my time covering the draft process that applies to Kendricks. When players are devalued for one reason and one reason only, be it lack of size, subpar athleticism, played low-level competition in college, etc. they often outplay their draft slot.
When a player has only one flaw and is otherwise a complete player and this flaw did not stop them from being a productive college player, this flaw often times does not prevent them from being a successful pro. Production is ultimately the most important factor when evaluating a prospect, and Kendricks was a highly productive collegiate player. Were Kendricks two inches taller and 10 pounds heavier, he would be ranked much much higher than he is now.
Kendricks is ranked by most (not all, but most) as a second-round prospect, and I can't remember the last time I saw him in a first-round mock; however, I have him firmly in my top-20 prospects, and he has been moving up my board steadily in recent months. Gil Brandt of NFL.com is one of the many analysts who disagree with me and feel that Kendricks does not belong in the 1st round.
.@mrosekNFL Kendricks had good combine workout. Somewhat undersized. Good bloodlines; brother plays for Eagles. Probably not 1st-rounder— Gil Brandt (@Gil_Brandt) February 27, 2015
Yet again, Kendricks's size is the issue. And again, it is the only issue. Because of his lack of ideal size Kendricks may not have the highest ceiling in the draft, but for four years, he will provide a steady presence at linebacker and outperform his rookie salary. The key to success in a salary cap league is having underpaid players. Kendricks will be underpaid from the moment his name is called on through his fourth, and potentially fifth season of his rookie contract. He is without a doubt a first-round prospect.
The team with the most glaring need for an inside linebacker is undoubtedly the San Francisco 49ers. Kendricks would start immediately and provide a significant upgrade over anyone else they could add at this point. They pick 15th in the first round which is a little early for Kendricks; though, I still think they would be pleased with the selection when all is said and done.
Ideally, the Niners would trade back in the first round, take Kendricks, and pick up another selection or two later in the draft. Its not out of the realm of possibility that Kendricks is available with the 46th pick when the 49ers pick in the 2nd round, though it is highly unlikely. San Fran could trade up a few spots in the 2nd round if he falls into the late 30s or early 40s. In any scenario, the 49ers would benefit greatly from adding Kendricks to their roster.