Heading into the NFL draft, Erin Henderson was hoping he would get the opportunity to play middle linebacker for the first time in his Vikings career.
With the Vikings passing on Manti Te'o, Alec Ogletree, Kevin Minter and other middle linebacker possibilities at the position in the first round of the draft, that possibility became more realistic. When they traded away second-, third-, fourth- and seventh-round picks to make a third selection in the first round, it pretty much sealed Henderson’s move.
Coaches have told Henderson he will be starting out the Vikings’ organized team activities later this month at middle linebacker.
“Right now, yeah, that’s what I expect,” Henderson said. “But you never really know how things go and what things they might talk about as we move forward and what they might decide that they want to do. Right now, that’s where my mind is, that’s what I’m studying and that’s what I’m trying to prepare myself for.”
“I’m excited for the opportunity, man. My time here has been spent playing the will linebacker. But I got a taste of that mike and what it’s about when I’ve had the chance to play in those nickel situations. I look forward to the challenge. It’s something new for me to learn, something new for me to put my brain to and help me refocus a little bit with the kind of work and time I have to put in in order for us to be successful.”
The Vikings signed Henderson to a two-year, $4 million deal that included a signing bonus of $500,000 and a roster bonus of $500,000 before free agency started. It’s the biggest commitment made to him since he was acquired as an undrafted rookie in 2008.
He called it a “great feeling” to be able to do more for his family, but he is also looking forward to doing more on the field. A move to middle linebacker full-time would help get him there.
Last year, while dealing with a concussion that limited his availability for a few weeks (he missed only one game), he played in 60 percent of the defensive snaps while middle linebacker Jasper Brinkley played in 75 percent. The two alternated time as the middle linebacker in the nickel defense next to Chad Greenway.
Since then, Brinkley signed with the Arizona Cardinals and Henderson is getting ready for more action.
“Honestly, you guys won’t see the stat lines with two tackles, four tackles anymore. People won’t be able to give me a hard time about that,” Henderson said. “I’ll be in the middle, I’ll be able to move around a little bit and use my best ability, which I think is my agility and my ability to run from sideline to sideline. So I’ll have a chance to do that and be involved in more of the plays. I think that will be one of the biggest differences for me.
“I’ve already had to make checks and make corrections and different things like that playing the nickel mike. I think people understand in this day and age, 75 percent of the game is played against the nickel package anyway. So more times than not I was running the show already. Now it’s a matter of doing it full-time when we come out to practice and everything else. I’m excited about the opportunity. I look forward to it.”
Henderson said he approached linebackers coach Fred Pagac about the possibility of playing middle linebacker and wanted the team to know that was his desire. His older brother, E.J. Henderson, was a staple in the middle of the Vikings defense for much of his nine-year career after being a second-round draft choice in 2003.
Erin hasn’t talked to E.J. much about playing the position and says he will wait until he has more practice time there so he can ask better questions, but even before the draft, Erin was preparing for the possibility, going from a previous playing weight of 240 pounds to pushing 250 right now.
“I know I’m going to have to have a little bit more lead in my pencil, so to speak, when you’re playing in the middle, playing that mike. So it’s just that and getting a little bit stronger at the point of attack and being able to take the next step from there,” he said.
He has been told that the three best linebackers will play, but he’s confident he can be the man in the middle of that three-man mix.
“I think them moving me to that position and giving me a chance to play it shows that they trust me upstairs,” Erin said. “I love the locker room that we have and the guys who look up to me and respect me for what I’ve done and what I want to be able to do in the future, as well as how I carry myself around here. I’m not mean to anybody. I’m not rude to anybody. If anybody has a question, they can come talk to me and ask me whatever they want to know, whether that be on the field or off the field. I think it’s a good fit.”
Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.