This is the cover story for the December 20 edition of Gameday Magazine which can be found at the Lincoln Financial Field Pro Shop as well as select ACME Markets.*
On a late August night at the NovaCare Complex in South Philadelphia, Mychal Kendricks signed a contract extension that will keep him in the middle of the Eagles' defense through the 2019 season. For months, the talk outside the building was about how Kendricks might not have been the right fit in the Eagles' scheme, about how he could be trade bait leading into the NFL Draft, and about how his size might hold him back from being what the Eagles were looking for at linebacker.
Inside the building, while all of this speculation was thrown against the wall looking for something to stick outside the walls, the Eagles and Kendricks were working on a new contract to keep No. 95 as a pillar of the defense for years to come.
"Height, weight and size? About me? Oh my God. I don't think I'll ever hear the end of this," Kendricks said in a phone conversation with Dave Spadaro minutes after signing the contract. "Dude, I don't care. I'm a baller and I feel the Eagles don't care, either. They know I'm a baller, too. That's the reason why I just signed, but yeah for the world out there, I mean I am the new prototype. I repeat I am the new prototype. I am everything you want in a linebacker."
Roughly three months later, Kendricks is proving that the new model of linebacker in the NFL is here to stay. Despite missing three-plus games with a hamstring injury, Kendricks ranks among the team leaders in tackles, flying around the field and making his presence known.
The numbers say he's 6-foot and 240 pounds, but the numbers mean nothing to him.
"When you think of an inside linebacker, you think of someone who's damn near as big as a defensive lineman but just not as heavy," Kendricks said. "A linebacker, they back up the line. Me, I'm as short as a defensive back but as thick as a linebacker needs to be and I'm as fast as anything out there on the field. I think the new hybrid of linebacker is a linebacker that can really track the back on every step, whether it's in the backfield or in open space, and a linebacker that can also blitz like a defensive end who is on the line and cause penetration too with offensive linemen.
"You're getting something completely different (with me), something unorthodox, and that's why I say I'm the new prototype. As offenses become more spread out and as long as they keep running the option and quarterbacks keep getting faster and more athletic, they're going to need a backer like me."
The Eagles signed linebacker Mychal Kendricks to a four-year contract extension on Monday that will keep him in Philadelphia through the 2019 season ...
Over the years, Kendricks has heard it all. Throughout his football career, going back to his college days at the University of California and the time leading up to the 2012 NFL Draft, he's had his detractors. In response, he's elevated his game with each step along the way.
"College and the draft, they all said that. 'You're kinda small aren't ya?'" said the 25-year old. "I just looked them up and down and I knew that the people saying that didn't want anything to do with me, so I didn't want anything to do with them. I think I've proven the world wrong with that. I do things differently because of my stature.
"There have been plenty of linebackers that have done this before me that are my same size. (Former New England Patriots linebacker)Teddy Bruschi wasn't too big. There have been people to do it before me, but I just feel like in terms of blitzing, penetration in the backfield and being able to react and be step for step with the back and my ability to pass rush and get into holes that normally linebackers can't get through, I can and that sets me a part."
Earlier this season, head coach Chip Kelly spoke at a press conference about the difference between the outside perception of the Eagles' team and what the reality was. Despite a three-game losing streak and media pundits left and right speculating Kelly's move to the hottest college opening, Kelly wanted to show to his players that what goes on in the building is all that matters, and he used Kendricks' situation as a primary example.
"A lot of reports that are put in the media, like Mychal Kendricks, that we don't like Mychal Kendricks, and that he doesn't fit our prototype of what we are looking for in a linebacker. … And all of a sudden, we re-sign Mychal Kendricks," Kelly said. "What is reported is the perception. The reality is that we think Mychal is a great fit in terms of what we do, so there is a litany of them. The problem is I think a lot of people can get sidetracked with what the perceptions are, and we have to really focus on the reality."
With Kendricks, outside perception is thrown out the door. He knows the hard work he puts in and the player that he has become. Every doubt that he's ever heard has fueled him to strive for more.
"I don't even know what people think of me and I don't care, and that's the truth," said Kendricks. "I don't read into anything. The reality is that I'm out there to compete and I want to win probably more than anyone. With me, you're getting someone who is going to try to put the team on their back and do the damn thing and isn't scared to step up in a pressure situation and try to rise to it.
"The reality is that I'm a threat. I feel like I'm a real threat on the defensive side of the ball. The reality is that I can do anything. I could play running back if I wanted to. I could play special teams. I can cover, I can blitz and I'm probably more well-rounded than most in terms of specific positions. That's my reality."
What ingredients go into making of an NFL linebacker? In the past, it was things like burly shoulder pads, pressed-on nasal strips and countless reps on the bench press. The new model has a bit of a different makeup. Kendricks grew up playing football, but he also attended the highly-selective Bullard Talent, a private school specializing in the performing arts. His background in the arts has painted Kendricks a different way of seeing things, and has added grace and creativity to the list of moving parts that make the inside linebacker tick.
"I move completely different than most linebackers. It is a choreographed step, I don't care what anyone says," said Kendricks. "When you get a pulling guard and you know that backside tackle or tight end is coming to get you, there are certain steps, rhythmic steps, and muscle memory takes over and you know how to step, and it's the same thing in dance and in any choreographed step.
"I was also into the arts, like painting and singing, and that all works your right brain, which is your more creative side. That allows you to be creative on the field as well. I may see some things that most people won't see. I see things from a different perspective, on and off the field. I can alert things in a different way, and I think that allows me to make plays that others may or may not make … There's definitely a balance. You can't be out of control in this game. You'll be exposed. There's a time to be out of control and there's a time to know when you're getting some crazy looks and it's going to take some disciplined eye control to get your job done."
Mychal Kendricks is a different kind of athlete. In years past, you wouldn't find his picture in the football dictionary next to inside linebacker, but Kendricks is re-writing the book on NFL linebackers, and he's paving his own way towards stardom in a city that demands the most from its athletes.
"Mark my words, the linebacker is going to slowly start changing, and it already is. It's not your big, huge linebackers anymore. It's not your (Former Chicago Bears Linebacker Brian) Urlacher, and (New England Patriots linebacker Dont'a) Hightower or your (Houston Texans linebacker Brian) Cushing -- those guys are really great players and they play well in their defenses, but in a defense like this (in Philadelphia) or one similar, I think there's a perfect spot for me.
"Nobody is doing it like me. I promise you that."