It’s often said NFL players, at least the ones who emerge into superstars, make their biggest strides from Year 1 to Year 2, and then elevate into a different stratosphere when they get into their third year.
Eagles linebacker Mychal Kendricks is entering his third season since becoming the 46th player taken in the 2012 draft.
And although he’s reached that mythical milestone year where players on the rise suddenly blossom into superstars, it’s important to note that Kendricks is more like the upcoming prospect trying to build upon a promising rookie season.
Kendricks, like most of his teammates on defense, started from scratch last year in the 3-4 scheme implemented by new coach Chip Kelly and defensive coordinator Bill Davis. He had spent most of his rookie season miscast as a strong-side linebacker in the longtime 4-3 run by Andy Reid’s staff.
Kendricks seemed skeptical about the notion that benchmarks in a player’s career are earmarked for specific seasons, but he’s certain that at some point -- perhaps even this year -- he’ll barge into the category of elite.
“I know I’m gonna be a great player," he said. “I know I’m on my way to be that. All I can do is work hard every day and keep my eye on the prize and strive for that. Everyone’s a critic and everyone has something to say about who is great and what greatness is and what the signs are when somebody is gonna be great. But for myself, I know what I’m going to be.
“So, hypothetically speaking, if this thing doesn’t pan out how I want it to [this year], there’s still more years to come. That’s hypothetically speaking.”
In theory, as Kendricks might suggest, his best days should be right on the horizon. Last year, after a so-so start, his production ramped up when the calendar turned to December.
There was the 14-tackle game against the Cardinals, followed by eight more tackles and a game-turning fumble recovery in the snow against the Lions that set up Chris Polk’s game-sealing touchdown run.
One week later, he was the only defensive player to get off the bus in Minnesota, racking up 12 more tackles and an interception in an embarrassing road blowout loss to the NFC North doormat Vikings. The following Sunday, he had two sacks of Jay Cutler in a blowout win over the Bears.
Then came the do-or-die season finale against the Cowboys at AT&T Stadium. Kendricks finished with 11 tackles, jarred the ball loose from DeMarco Murray and picked off Kyle Orton for his third interception of the season. He single-handedly forced two turnovers that led to 10 points in the 24-22 win that completed the team’s turnaround from 4-12 to division champs.
Heck of a finish for the guy’s first season in Davis’ scheme. So Kendricks isn’t really beating his chest when he forecasts greatness for himself in the near future. His ascendance should be a natural byproduct of his talent manifested in a scheme that he actually gets to function in for the second straight year.
“I’m not cocky,” he said. “I’m a humble soldier. That’s just what everyone in here works for. What kind of player would I be if I didn’t say that? It’s my second year in the same system. I’ve had two years in college with the same system.
“My first two years of college, I had two years in the same system. Then we switched and I had another two years in that system ... and I felt more comfortable coming my second year in those systems as I do now. The second year in those systems I had really good years, so I can only expect the same.”
As a freshman at Cal, Kendricks played 13 games and logged 15 tackles, one sack and one tackle for a loss. The following season, he played 13 games again but finished with 72 tackles, six for a loss.
Over his next two seasons, following a scheme change, Kendricks totaled 172 tackles, 29½ of them for a loss, and 11½ sacks. He was named the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year after his senior season.
“Man, haven’t had a third year in a system,” Kendricks said. “I’m not looking forward, not jumping years from now, but damn. That’s gonna be fun.”
Teammates and coaches have already predicted a monster year for Kendricks, who teams with two-time Pro Bowl linebacker DeMeco Ryans to form the inside tandem in Davis’ 3-4.
Not only are they seeing more comfort from Kendricks in the scheme and his assignments, but they’re also seeing him play on instinct, which lets his natural athleticism shine through.
“I think Mychal's mind is slowing down,” Davis said. “I know we talk about that a lot up here. He's playing faster, but he still can grasp the defense to another level, which will help him play faster.
“Mychal is a phenomenal athlete that can make a lot of plays, but [you] unleash that ability to make plays when your brain is working slower and it comes easy to you. So I would say Mychal continuing to grow in his understanding of the defense will help him make more plays.”
Kendricks and Ryans each had four sacks last year, tying for third-most on the defense. They became the first linebacker duo in team history to each record at least four sacks and two interceptions.
Kendricks joined former linebackers William Thomas and Seth Joyner as the only Eagles with at least four sacks and three picks in one season. There are five Pro Bowls between Thomas and Joyner, two of the franchise’s all-time greats.
For Kendricks, it’s just a matter of time before he’s a great one, too.
“That’s just how I feel,” he said. “I feel like there’s other people around me that feel the same way and I feel the same way about other guys in this room, too. I feel that about this team. That’s how I feel and that’s what I’m going to preach until the day this thing is over.”