ILB prospect Kendricks is tough enough

Ryan Wood
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UCLA linebacker Eric Kendricks tackles Texas wide receiver Marcus Johnson during a game in September.

Years later, Eric Kendricks still remembers the rock. It was thrown by his older brother. Hard at his face.

With a thud, a gash opened across his left cheek. There's still a hint of a scar. Kendricks will gladly show you. It reminds him of the boyhood competitions with his big brother Mychal, instilling the toughness needed to play a no-guts, no-glory position like inside linebacker.

The two were born just 17 months apart. Always pushing each other, always fighting. In their house, brotherly love meant sibling rivalry.

"We competed in everything," Eric said, "including getting to the remote for the television. I was born in that environment, and I still to this day crave it. I crave competition, and I find it in every aspect of life. Competition is in my blood."

The friction faded long ago. Now, the Kendricks brothers are each other's staunchest supporter. Eric followed his brother's trail, both playing linebacker in high school and college. It led him to the cusp of the NFL.

Three years after the Philadelphia Eagles drafted Mychal in the second round, Eric has a chance to do one better April 30. He emerged as the top inside linebacker prospect in the 2015 draft after a strong showing at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis, highlighted by his 4.66-second 40-yard dash.

UCLA linebacker Eric Kendricks  sacks Kansas State quarterback Jake Waters  during the first half of the 2015 Alamo Bowl at Alamodome.

Kendricks left Indianapolis as the only inside linebacker with a first-round grade, according to NFL Draft Scout. His brother deserves partial credit.

"He went through it a couple of years back," Kendricks said, "and kind of walked me through it. Not too much. He's let me do my own thing, but he's given me some advice here and there."

It's clear the Green Bay Packers will restock their inside linebacker depth chart this offseason. They released A.J. Hawk and Brad Jones in the past week, cutting ties with their two most experienced inside linebackers.

Green Bay hopes third-year player Sam Barrington blossoms into a starter. With general manager Ted Thompson's draft-and-develop philosophy, the Packers likely will pluck a college prospect – maybe two – to pair with Barrington next season.

Thompson could have an interesting decision late in the first round. Traditionally, inside linebacker isn't a marquee position in the draft. In the past five years, only two (Luke Kuechly and Rolando McClain) were selected in the top 10. In 2011, none were drafted in the first round.

If an impact player at another position — tight end, defensive tackle or cornerback — falls to No. 30, the Packers could delay targeting inside linebacker until late in the second round. If no true difference makers remain at No. 30, Green Bay could trade out of the first round, acquire an extra pick or two, and still get an inside linebacker.

Which direction Thompson goes ultimately will depend on how the draft board looks when the Packers are on the clock. It's no guarantee Kendricks still will be available at No. 30. If he is, the 2014 Butkus Award winner could be hard to pass up.

NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock said Kendricks and Denzel Perryman of Miami are his two highest-rated inside linebackers.

"They're fun to watch," Mayock said. "They just get to the football. They're so quick with their decision-making and instincts. Perryman and Kendricks are more athletic, they're more twitchy."

In college, Kendricks was the three-down linebacker Packers coach Mike McCarthy said his team needed. He also played on every special teams unit as a freshman and sophomore, another trait McCarthy covets in a linebacker.

Kendricks made 149 tackles, 11.5 for loss, four sacks and three interceptions while earning first-team all-America honors during his senior season at UCLA. He finished his career as the Bruins' all-time tackles leader.

"My ability to track down the ball carrier wherever he's at, and however I have to get there, I think it's uncommon," Kendricks said. "I can't explain how I do it. I just get to the ball."

For a run defense that ranked at the bottom of the league early last season before finishing 23rd, a shock-and-shed, gap-plugging inside linebacker likely will be a high priority. However, the Packers must consider all responsibilities of the position, including the ability to cover tight ends in the middle of the field.

It takes height to cover tall, lanky tight ends. Height is not a characteristic of the top inside linebackers in this draft. Kendricks, Perryman and TCU's Paul Dawson all are below average for a 3-4 inside linebacker.

Behind the top three, the Packers can find inside linebackers with above-average height. Mississippi State's Benardrick McKinney, arguably the most physically gifted in the class, was measured at 6-foot-4 in Indianapolis. Clemson's Stephone Anthony (6-3) and Georgia's Ramik Wilson (6-2) also have decent height.

"It depends who they're standing next to," Mayock said. "The inside linebackers in a 3-4 are kind of like a tandem. One guy has to be thumper. The other guy is a little bit more of a run-free guy."

At 6-1, Barrington has average height for the position. It wouldn't be unusual for the Packers to pair him with another linebacker with average or below-average height.

Of the 15 teams that played a 3-4 scheme last season, only six had an inside linebacker taller than 6-1. The New York Jets and Baltimore Ravens were the only teams with both starting inside linebackers taller than that. On the flip side, the New Orleans Saints and Indianapolis Colts both starting inside linebackers shorter than 6-1.

Naturally, Kendricks was asked about his height in Indianapolis. For that, he again pointed to his brother.

Mychal is one of two starting 3-4 inside linebackers who measure shorter than 6-0. At 5-11, his below-average height hasn't prevented him from becoming a dependable NFL player.

"Measurables are one thing," Eric said, "but you can't measure explosion, and you can't measure certain other things that people bring to the table like natural instinct and getting to the ball. That's what he has. That's what I have."

— and follow him on Twitter @ByRyanWood.

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