EAGAN (FOX 9) - Two key pieces of the Minnesota Vikings’ defense had vastly different reactions when asked about linebacker Anthony Barr saying no to the Jets and returning to Minnesota in free agency.
Linebacker Eric Kendricks was virtually alongside most of Barr’s brief free agency ride. The two are workout partners dating back to their college days at UCLA, and Kendricks was certain he was gone.
“I sent him texts when it started going down and I was just like ‘Man it’s going to be weird not playing with you.’ I thought about it but I hadn’t really processed it at that time,” Kendricks said.
Barr’s response? “Hold on, just wait a second.”
Barr had agreed in principle to join the New York Jets at the start of free agency last month, but after getting off the phone with his agent, literally felt sick to his stomach in his hotel room. He couldn’t go through with it, got back on the phone with his agent and started working out a deal to return to the Vikings.
It means Kendricks and Barr are back together as key pieces of the Vikings’ linebacking corps. Kendricks couldn’t contain his smile, or his excitement.
“It’s dope, it’s so dope,” Kendricks said.
Safety Harrison Smith is one of the steadiest players on the Vikings’ defense. Rarely displaying emotion, he nearly broke down in tears when asked Tuesday about the impact of Barr’s return.
He surprised even himself with the emotion, not knowing it was coming.
“A guy making a choice like that is pretty big. It doesn’t happen a lot in pro sports, even if it’s a couple million dollars. It means different things to different people. For him, it meant staying here,” Smith said while fighting back tears.
That’s the reality of professional sports. Most athletes in the prime of their career chase the biggest contract they can find, and deservedly so. They’ve worked hard for it, and it’s an opportunity that might not come around again.
Barr cared about his Vikings’ teammates and the family culture created by Mike Zimmer.
“He’s one of my best friends. Honestly I wanted him to go get as much money as he could make. Pro sports, that’s how things happen. I honestly wanted him here as well, so I wasn’t going to be upset one way or the other but it’s just an emotional game,” Smith said. “You make friendships and you make plays together and you’re pumped for the guy next to you, that’s why I play.”
Kendricks knew he had to entertain the idea that Barr wasn’t returning, but he didn’t want to think about it and certainly didn’t want to interrupt his free agency process.
Barr and Kendricks were workout partners during the free agency cycle. Kendricks witnessed his phone calls and stayed in touched when he could. From California, Barr grew up in an area where he might never see an opportunity again for the pay day that was in front of him.
“You always want the best, I wanted to see him get that big pay day, get what he’s earned. For him to take a step back and realize what truly makes him happy, that’s huge,” Kendricks said. “It just shows you a lot about him and our team and the kind of guys we got.”
Barr missed three games due to injury last year and finished with 55 tackles, including three sacks. Kendricks missed the last two games with a hamstring injury, yet led Minnesota with 108 tackles, including 63 solo tackles and one sack.
Smith played every game last season, finishing with 84 tackles, nine tackles for a loss and two fumble recoveries. That’s three key pieces of the Vikings’ defense in the prime of their careers all back for next season, along with veterans like Everson Griffen and Xavier Rhodes among other talent.
The front office and coaching staff have built a culture that the players want to be involved in.
“I feel like we just love playing with each other. We know what kind of group we have, we have each other’s backs,” Kendricks said. “I take a lot of trips with these guys in the offseason, and we just enjoy being together, working together and we know what we’re all chasing. It says a lot about what we got.”
Barr said himself the first day of NFL free agency was one of the worst days of his life. His relationship with his current teammates and his current head coach was too much to go after a bigger paycheck.
“I love my teammates, I love this locker room. My teammates and my coaches are unbreakable. This just felt right, this is where my heart is,” Barr said.