Given the big knock on his game, Mychal Kendricks used an interesting phrase on Friday when somebody asked him about his outlook for the upcoming season. The 26-year-old linebacker had spent the previous 10 minutes talking in thoughtful detail about his diminished playing time in defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz's scheme and his offseason request that the team trade him to a NFL team where he might enjoy a full-time role. Though the Eagles did not grant his request, Kendricks said he was trying to stay positive, limiting his focus to whatever snaps he does see.
"You've got to take that small amount of opportunities you get and try to make those 'wow' plays," he said, "and that's what I'm going to do."
Wow plays. Nowhere in the football lexicon can you find two words that offer a better summation of Kendricks as a football player, with regard to both his promise and his fate. From the moment the Eagles drafted him with the No. 46 pick in 2012, his tantalizing blend of speed and strength were on display. He started 14 games as a rookie during Andy Reid's disastrous final season as head coach, emerging from the rubble as one of the few flashes of promise on a defense that finished 29th in the league in points allowed. In 2013, he garnered national attention with two sacks and a forced fumble in a Sunday night blowout of the Bears, a performance that led NBC analyst Cris Collinsworth to opine the following week that he was "turning into one of the best young players there is in the game."
Yet even back then, regular viewers of Kendricks might have noticed that his highlight reel didn't always line up with the rest of his tape. Case in point was that win over the Bears. For every shot of him running over Matt Forte en route to a sack, there was another of him scrambling into the television frame while running downfield against Martellus Bennett or dropping into an underneath zone.
Among those observers, it turned out, was his own defensive coordinator, who drew plenty of criticism for his utilization of the linebacker during his final couple of seasons at the helm.
"Sometimes Mychal kind of drifts on you at the wrong time," Billy Davis said in an interview with the Daily News after his firing. "He makes some great plays, but there are other plays that hurt you."
Heading into last season, the hope was that Davis' criticism would prove to be a case of sour grapes, the revisionist history of a defensive coordinator who lacked the acumen to get the most out of his personnel. But Kendricks quickly proved to be just as much of a conundrum for Schwartz. The Eagles spent the early part of last training camp struggling to defend their own tight ends and running backs, and when a reporter asked the defensive coordinator about Kendricks' performance in that department, he responded with a telling quote.
"Mychal's a very, very good athlete," Schwartz said. "He can do some things. He's explosive. He can run. He can cover. It is a little bit new for him, but it's starting to get toward the end of being new."
By the end of last season, Kendricks had played just a quarter of the team's snaps, with veteran newcomer Nigel Bradham establishing himself as the team's most consistent linebacker next to Jordan Hicks. Part of that had to do with coverage, no doubt, but if you rewind through Kendricks' career you'll find plenty of instances where one of his lapses has led to an opposing running back gashing the front seven for a big gain. Football is an assignment game and Kendricks' tendency to stray from his lane enables opposing offenses to use his athleticism against him.
Maybe it all comes down to mentality. Perhaps Kendricks, at his core, is a player who has yet to overcome that instinctual desire to make every play. The past decade or so has seen the NFL explode with players whose versatility enables their coaches to isolate and exploit whatever weaknesses exist on the opposite side of the field. Take, for instance, a package the Eagles have been using in training camp that features their two diminutive, pass-catching running backs — veteran Darren Sproles and rookie Donnel Pumphrey — on the field with a tight end. The possible play calls out of such a formation puts a lot of pressure on a linebacker to do the right thing at the snap.
"It's not just the running backs that are threats in the pass game, but it's also the proliferation of the wide receiver tight end," Schwartz said on Friday. "It puts an emphasis on multidimension on players. It's hard to be a one-trick pony in the NFL. It's hard to be a run stopper. You don't control whether it's a run or a pass, so you have to be a multidimensional player on defense."