When Mychal Kendricks was drafted in the second round of the 2012 NFL draft, named a starter at the SAM linebacker position from the beginning of training camp, and produced at a high level in his rookie season, the thought process was that he would be a fixture for the Philadelphia Eagles defense for years. That belief grew stronger when he continued to build on that promising first season, showing potential and flashes of dominance in each of his next three seasons. Unfortunately, due to a few injuries, coaching and scheme changes, and the evolution of the passing offense in football, Kendricks has found himself frustrated with decreasing playing time caused by factors out of his control.
Mychal Kendricks: A Victim of Circumstance
Making an Immediate Impact as a Rookie
As a highly productive linebacker out of the University of California, Kendricks found himself riding the momentum from being named the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year as a senior into instantly being projected as a starter for the Eagles. That starting position at linebacker would be on the strong-side, as opposed to his collegiate position in the middle. The transition was due to the presence of DeMeco Ryans, who was acquired a little over a month prior to the draft. Expectations were obviously high as a rookie starter, not only to see results but to see them right away.
Despite a tumultuous season, that started with the firing of defensive coordinator Juan Castillo after six games and ended with the firing of head coach Andy Reid after only four wins, Kendricks had seemed to prove the organization right for having so much faith in him from the beginning. Even though he missed their week 17 loss to the New York Giants with a concussion, he accumulated 75 tackles, the third most on the team, and was on the field for nearly 90% of the defensive plays. After such a strong rookie season, the unknown of who the head coach or defensive coordinator would be the next season caused a bit of concern in what was hoped to be continued progression of his game.
New Coach, New Defense, New Position
With the highly publicized hiring of Chip Kelly as the new head coach of the Eagles, came the hiring of Billy Davis as defensive coordinator. Unlike the previous year’s defensive scheme, Davis implemented a 3-4 defense, which forced players already on the roster to move positions. The changes, which are normal for a team transitioning from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4 defense, saw defensive tackles moved to defensive ends, defensive ends to outside linebackers and outside linebackers to inside linebackers.
Following a successful first season as an outside linebacker, Kendricks found himself converting back into an inside linebacker, but in a completely different style of defense. Learning a new position, with new responsibilities, did not seem to deter him from continuing to make an impact. Kendricks built on a strong rookie year with an even better second year. Even with a slight decrease in playing time and a missed game due to a knee injury, Kendricks compiled 106 tackles, four sacks, and three interceptions in a season that saw the Eagles win the NFC East division title.
Injuries Limit Development and Production
The numbers produced by Kendricks increased expectations, projecting a jump forward to possibly elite status in his all-important third season. He began the season with 20 tackles and a sack in the first seven quarters of the year until leaving the team’s second game with a calf injury against the Indianapolis Colts.
The calf injury lingered with him enough to keep him out the next four games, leading up to the Eagles bye week. In his first action after injury, he was limited in action, not starting the game and only getting a total of three tackles. Recording 60 more tackles and three more sacks in the final nine games of the season, Kendricks showed a glimpse of what the organization hoped he could be but would still need to prove it for a full season.
After recording 17 total tackles to begin his fourth season, hopes of a completely healthy season were quickly shattered when he injured his hamstring in the week two matchup against the Dallas Cowboys. This injury caused him to miss their week three game against the New York Jets, re-aggravating the injury in an attempt to play in week four against the Washington Redskins and then sitting out the next two weeks in order to get healthy. Reminiscent of the prior season, Kendricks returned to healthy form with 20 tackles and three sacks in the next three games, finishing the season with 86 tackles and three sacks.
Although he had been effective when on the field, the inability to stay healthy for the whole 16 game schedule was considered to be a disappointment. The impact of Kendricks is missed when missing a quarter of the season, or those few games that make the difference between missing the playoffs and winning a division.
To add on to the disappointment, after back to back 10 win seasons, Kelly had been given powers of general manager and completely rebuilt the team. In the process, Kelly released or traded star players and acquired players that did not pan out on his way to only a seven-win season and his abrupt firing.
The Blitz-less Defense of Jim Schwartz
To get the franchise back to winning football and counteract the unique style of football that was run by the team the past three seasons, the Eagles hired first-time head coach Doug Pederson. Pederson was Reid’s former quarterback’s coach with the Eagles. Following shortly thereafter was the hiring of Jim Schwartz as defensive coordinator, which led to the return of the 4-3 defensive scheme. In the process, Schwartz brought his philosophy of only utilizing the blitz in certain situations, relying more on a strong pass-rush from the defensive line.
The Eagles would then bring in linebacker Nigel Bradham from the Buffalo Bills, the team most recently coached by Schwartz as a defensive coordinator. With the emergence of starting middle linebacker Jordan Hicks, prior to suffering a season-ending pectoral injury, the Bradham signing would end up moving Kendricks to the weak-side, as opposed to the strong-side like he was in the old 4-3 defense.
Schwartz also would lean heavily on nickel and dime packages. Those packages replace a linebacker or two with an equal amount of defensive backs, to offset the amount of receivers the Eagles have used against them. Other teams notice Schwartz is not blitzing as often, thus opposing offenses use a would-be extra blocker as a receiver.
The transition was unfortunate for Kendricks because he was the weakest of the starting linebackers in coverage; his natural instinct is going after the quarterback. Subsequently, Kendricks saw a dramatic drop in plays. Despite missing only one game, he saw only 32 tackles on the season while not recording a sack.
Frustration Caused by Limited Role
Prior to this season, Kendricks had revealed that he requested to be traded due to the lack of playing time. He was denied, mostly due to the fact that he was still a young and talented player that could be helpful to them. The frustration coming from Kendricks, who did not play in more than 13 snaps at all the year prior, is understandable from a player in the prime of their career at the age of 27. The idea of such a talented player being underutilized when healthy does seem like a waste when he could be swapped to fill other holes but having too much talent at a position is never a bad thing for a team.
Seemingly adjusting to his role of being ready when called upon, Kendricks has already made big plays for the Eagles this season, leading to a dramatic increase of plays with a total of 43 in the first two games. His patience paid off in week three against the Giants when he ended up on the field for 48 snaps due to an injury to Hicks, leading to seven total tackles, tied for third on the Eagles for the game. Though Hicks is expected to play in the upcoming matchup against the Los Angeles Chargers, Kendricks ferocious play in week three may derive more play time. Kendricks may not be in an ideal situation for this point in his career, but he will certainly make the most of it.