E.J. Henderson’s nine-year career with the Minnesota Vikings has probably best been known for his remarkable recovery from a badly broken leg than for any particular achievement on the field.
But the sight of those dreadlocks bouncing out of Henderson’s helmet over the No. 56 on the back of his jersey while he has raced back and forth and side to side from his middle linebacker spot has become one of the enduring images of Minnesota’s not-dominant-but-decent defense over the last decade.
Henderson’s tenure, the third-longest on the team, could end this weekend. His contract is expiring, and he hasn’t heard from the front office about a new deal.
“It’s natural coming up on your last year, always wondering where you’re going to be at next September,” Henderson said. “So, of course, it’s been on my mind, but I’m trying to stay positive and hopefully in the next couple of months we can get something done and I’ll still be a Viking.”
Asked to cover more turf than any other player in the Tampa-2 scheme, Henderson has had his hands full. He has never excelled in pass coverage, but the sleek tight ends all over the league are a tough assignment for anyone.
He has missed his share of tackles this year and he hasn’t made as many of those so-called “splash” plays—big hits for big losses behind the line of scrimmage—after his gruesome injury, but he has been as steady as a team could ever ask.
Drafted in the second round in 2003 out of Maryland, Henderson became a starter in his second year. He will start his 107th regular-season Sunday when the Vikings host the Chicago Bears. He has 120 tackles, two sacks and a team-high 14 tackles for loss this year, playing a second straight full season after breaking the femur bone in his left leg in a game Dec. 6, 2009.
Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said this week he believes Henderson can still be a productive “16-game starter” in the NFL at his age. He’ll be 32 next season, though, and the Vikings must get younger at a number of positions if they’re going to form a foundation for a playoff contender anytime soon.
“His leadership has helped us to get through a tough season, and his play has been very good for us,” Frazier said. “There have been some things he’d like to do better, but overall, I think he’s done a good job.”
Henderson said he feels as good physically in the last week of the season as he ever has, crediting the hyperbaric chamber he bought recently for helping rejuvenate his body. He sleeps in it four times per week, for five or six hours per night.
“If you can play in the Tampa-2 defense as a middle linebacker, I think you can pretty much fit in anywhere,” Henderson said.
Though the 3-12 record for the Vikings has long overshadowed such a landmark, playing next to younger brother Erin in the starting lineup the whole time—save for the one game Erin missed because he was injured—has been a life-changing experience for E.J. He said he’s grown even closer to Erin, with all the weeks they’ve spent in the same meeting rooms, huddles and on-field pileups.
They became the first set of brothers in at least the last 20 years to start the same NFL game for the same team at the linebacker position, and now they’ll both be unrestricted free agents.
“I’m happy with the time that we had, and hopefully we can have some more time together,” Erin said, adding: “If not, it was a fun journey. We can always say we did it. That’s something they can never take away from us.”
The Hendersons are far from the only significant veterans the Vikings must weigh whether to bring back or let leave in free agency during what will be another critical offseason toward their reconstruction project.
Tight end Visanthe Shiancoe and safeties Husain Abdullah and Tyrell Johnson also will be unrestricted free agents. Left guard Steve Hutchinson and cornerback Cedric Griffin are two other starters still under contract who could be asked to take a pay cut in order to return after a season of declined production.
Shiancoe wouldn’t touch the subject in an interview this week, but with veteran Jim Kleinsasser retiring the Vikings will need more than just Kyle Rudolph at that position next year. Hutchinson’s season ended early because of a concussion, and Frazier acknowledged the possibility that the five-time first-team All-Pro will consider quitting a year before his contract expires.
“I’m sure he and his family will discuss what his future is and how much longer he wants to play professional football. He’s still a guy who can play and still be a positive addition to your football team. He’s got some decisions that he’ll have to make after the season is over,” Frazier said.
The Vikings face many more choices.
“It’s a tough deal when you have guys that you think can help you, but in this age in free agency you know that most guys that can still perform are going to want to explore,” Frazier said. “We’ll do whatever we can with those guys we really want to keep here to try to keep them here.”