Mychal Kendricks wrestled with his words. The loquacious linebacker often stammered when answering questions on sensitive topics, and those questions often had to do with his decreased playing time.
He had seen less of the field in 2015 after Kiko Alonso joined the Eagles. Then, early in the 2016 season, with Jim Schwartz now the defensive coordinator, Kendricks had become merely a role player. His demotion had come late in training camp, and for a month, he dodged reporters.
But Kendricks could no longer avoid his responsibilities, and, after some haggling, walked out to the media house in a far corner of the NovaCare Complex. He expressed his frustration but carefully straddled the line between dutiful soldier and disgruntled employee.
But he would have a difficult time keeping his self-interest under wraps. And for the next two seasons, whenever the Eagles defense struggled, or whenever he got a taste of more time, Kendricks could be cajoled into giving his true feelings about his circumstances.
Even last season, after he was bumped up in place of injured Jordan Hicks, he privately griped about not being the lone linebacker in Schwartz’s dime personnel. A Super Bowl victory, of course, compensated for his personal forfeitures, but Kendricks’ days in Philadelphia were numbered.
He would be traded or released — a year after he requested that the Eagles do either — and when he balked at taking an absurd 75 percent pay cut on Tuesday, it was the latter. The Eagles waived Kendricks, and while they saved $6 million against their 2018 salary cap, they were ultimately unable to procure anything in return for a homegrown player who had once shown great promise.
Kendricks’ contract, along with his plateauing performance, had made it apparently impossible to trade the 27-year-old linebacker. He will surely catch on with another team, considering his youth and natural abilities, but the lack of interest over the last two offseasons suggests that the rest of the league doesn’t hold Kendricks in the same regard as he holds himself.
Perhaps a new environment and a new scheme will do him favors. But it has been nearly four years since Kendricks last peaked, and the decline just so happened to coincide with an August 2015 contract extension.
At the time, the four-year, $29 million deal was considered team-friendly, but it was one the Eagles had initiated because they believed Kendricks would be distracted playing in the last year of his rookie contract. And this had come after Chip Kelly had traded LeSean McCoy for Alonso, after he had tried to deal Kendricks — despite his protestations — and after the then-Eagles coach acknowledged that his linebacker’s “health” had become “a difficult thing.”
Kendricks had a strong 2014 season. He was second on the team in tackles (108), and he recorded four sacks and forced three fumbles despite missing four games. While others might play through soft-tissue injuries, Kendricks often needed multiple weeks to recover from muscle strains.
He missed three more games in 2015, and when Kendricks returned, then-defensive coordinator Bill Davis had instituted an inside-linebacker rotation that included, depending upon who was healthy, Kendricks, Hicks, Alonso, and DeMeco Ryans.
“It was hard for me to accept that,” Kendricks conceded the following May.
Most NFL players need a certain amount of confidence to compete at the highest level of their sport. Kendricks, at least on the surface, had that in doses. When Pro Bowl rosters were announced late in the 2014 season, he sat at his locker and couldn’t hide his frustration, even though perennial all-stars Luke Kuechly, Patrick Willis, and NaVorro Bowman were selected ahead of him.
Kendricks was only 24 at the time, and when the Eagles extended him, he called himself the “new prototype” for linebackers. But he regressed in 2015, even though he was in Davis’ 3-4 scheme for a third season. Covering running backs out of the backfield had become particularly troublesome.
Davis also said later that Kendricks couldn’t handle play-calling duties — further confirming that his mental struggles detracted from his physical skills. The return to an attacking 4-3 front was supposed to benefit him — “I feel if I stay healthy, you’ll see me in the Pro Bowl,” Kendricks said in May 2016. But he quickly fell out favor with Schwartz.
“Mychal’s a very, very good athlete. He can do some things. He’s explosive. He can run. He can cover,” Schwartz said that August. “It is a little bit new for him, but it’s starting to get toward the end of being new.”
Kendricks suffered a hamstring strain shortly after Schwartz made those comments, and when Kendricks returned two weeks later, Bradham had supplanted him. Over the next two years, he occasionally bemoaned his plight, but it was hard to second-guess Schwartz considering how Bradham and Hicks had played.
“I haven’t been able to play,” Kendricks said last October. “I could have been doing this. … You only have so much time to do this [stuff], man.”
He got his opportunity when Hicks went down, and he filled in nicely, but it ultimately wasn’t enough — for either side.
“Too talented for the [bull],” Kendricks said in a text message Wednesday. “Time for me to go play.”