On Jan. 10, when the Wilf family made its largest set of changes in its 17 years owning the Vikings, it was linebacker Eric Kendricks who signaled how big of a shift was coming next.
Kendricks' remarks about the Vikings' culture — when the linebacker said, "I don't think a fear-based organization is the way to go" — grabbed headlines and became something of a public bellwether for how the Vikings would replace general manager Rick Spielman and coach Mike Zimmer.
Behind the scenes, the linebacker was part of the leadership group that met with the Wilfs to share what players wanted from the organization. His relationship with the owners had grown through his work on the team's social justice committee and his nomination for the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award in 2020. In the early days of the Vikings' search for a new GM and head coach, Kendricks had accumulated enough capital to speak his mind.
"We had a great conversation at the end of the season and throughout the offseason a little bit," Kendricks said Wednesday. "Just having that bridge of communication with them and the management as well, I feel like it's not really common. I've talked to players around the league and they don't really have that communication with their ownership.
"Like I said, it's on us now as well, it can't just be on them, it can't just be on whoever we appoint the head guy. It's gotta be on the players as well, like myself, who have put their years and time into this league. If I want change, I gotta be that change myself."
Kendricks is 30 now, heading into his eighth NFL season and his first without fellow linebacker Anthony Barr, his teammate since their time together at UCLA). Only Harrison Smith has been part of the Vikings' defense for a longer period of time than Kendricks, and few voices carry more weight in the team's locker room than that of the All-Pro.
Speaking to reporters on Wednesday for the first time since his Jan. 10 comments, Kendricks had little interest in revisiting the 2021 season or what he'd said at the end of it. "I'm not going to talk about last season, really. It's a new year, it's a new day," he said.
It was clear, though, he's not interested in the Vikings' organizational changes being the end of their transformation.
"Here we are. We're here with a new staff, new players, new defense and we have this amazing opportunity ahead of us again," he said. "Every team around the league is going to have new types of situations going on with them. It's an even playing field right now. Whatever happened last year is in the past and we have to move forward. We can learn from a lot of things but we also have to adapt and change with the new year."
The Vikings replaced Spielman and Zimmer with Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and Kevin O'Connell, who've emphasized openness and empowering players during their first offseason in Minnesota. They replaced longtime head athletic trainer Eric Sugarman with Tyler Williams, in a move they hoped would create goodwill with players who'd been fearful of taking too much time to care for injuries could jeopardize their standing in the organization.
Music played throughout the Vikings' first open practice of organized team activities on Tuesday, as a new video screen allowed players to watch replays of practice snaps in real time. O'Connell moved to different spots on the field, spending time with defensive players as well as the ones he's typically coached on offense.
"I can literally be a part of as much or as little of any individual [period] I want to be — and more importantly, just be there, be around, be visible to the defense," O'Connell said Wednesday. "I can compliment them on detailed things they do, within our coverages, within a pressure, how we stop the run, and they can look at me as not just an offensive head coach. That's really important for me: that the guys on defense and special teams know that I'm aware, I understand the challenging things we're asking them to do. I think overall, it just helps with me connecting with every guy on the roster. That one-on-one level of connection's huge for me, and it's something I don't take for granted."
It all tracks closely with what players like Kendricks and offensive tackle Brian O'Neill said they wanted back in January. Kendricks, O'Connell said, has remained a key part of the Vikings' player leadership group that meets with the coach regularly.
"From Day One, I've been so impressed by Eric and just his impact on our team, his impact as a leader," O'Connell said. "We've got guys at every level of our defense that I feel really good about, but when you've got that guy in the middle of your defense, a core player, core leader on your team, it's just absolutely huge when you're teaching the new system, but also where you can go with it really quickly."
O'Connell came to the Vikings days after the Rams won their fourth game of the 2021 postseason with a victory in Super Bowl LVI. Before his 30th birthday, Kendricks played in just five playoff games.
If he feels more of an onus to help drive the Vikings forward, it's got as much to do with that fact as anything.
"I want that at this point of my career: I want to win a championship, I want us to win a Super Bowl," he said. "I want to win these games, I want to do what I've gotta do to have the career I want to have. So it's on me, essentially, as well."
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This story was originally published May 18, 2022 2:04 PM.