EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Returning to the Minnesota Vikings for his fifth NFL season, linebacker Erin Henderson has learned all about the harsh realities of life in the NFL.
Henderson has been dealing with them since he went undrafted in 2008. He had to work himself into a roster spot and then keep himself there with continued improvement. This offseason, he discovered the business side of the game.
Minnesota’s starting weakside linebacker entered free agency, hoping to cash in on his breakthrough 2011 season. Henderson, 25, was a starter for the first time last season and was hoping to get paid like one. But he quickly found out being rewarded isn’t always so simple, as the market for linebackers was slow to develop.
“It was stressful,” Henderson said last week at the Vikings organized team activities. “It was a learning process, too. I learned a lot from it. I learned a lot about myself and what I’m able to endure and go through. You learn a little bit more about the business, the other side of it.
“Coming from where I came from, I never had to worry about it much. I was an undrafted guy who was just trying to come in here and just trying to make the roster year in and year out. So, it was a learning process for me.”
March was trying for Henderson, and he expressed his frustration on his Twitter page. He wanted to stay with Minnesota. There was mutual interest, but the Vikings wanted to make the prudent business decision as well. So, the team waited to see how the market played out, and Henderson’s disappointment was evident.
“I’ve watched every single 1 of my games from last yr 10x’s over. I know what I’m worth. Not to mention they aint even give me an offer….,” Henderson tweeted, later adding: “Whats crazy is I’m not even asking for big money. All I want is respectable money for what I’m asked to do.”
Eventually Minnesota did offer Henderson a deal, but even that didn’t quite match expectations. Still, Henderson wanted to be with the Vikings, the team which first gave him his shot as an undrafted free agent. The desire to be in Minnesota overcame the need to wait out better deals, and Henderson signed a one-year, $2 million contract.
“I love being a Viking,” Henderson said. “I love being in Minnesota. The fans are great. They are amazing. They always supported me since Day 1 coming in here as an undrafted free agent. It’s a good fit for me. It’s a good feeling to be back here and I’m looking forward to spending many more years here.”
Henderson didn’t want to elaborate on other offers he had back in March. He’s focused on having another chance with the Vikings and said he’s “100 percent” committed to Minnesota.
“I just want to play football,” Henderson said. “When you don’t have a lot of opportunities afforded to you when you first get here, every one counts and every one you want to make count. You want to hold on to it and do the best that you can when given an opportunity. So, I have another opportunity to go out there, lace up my cleats and play football. I can’t complain about that.”
Henderson started 11 games in 2011, his first chance to do so. But even that wasn’t easy. He came to training camp last season in a battle with Jasper Brinkley, a former fifth-round pick, to take the open weakside linebacker spot. Brinkley eventually had hip surgery in the preseason, leaving Henderson with his long-awaited shot. He improved throughout the season and finished with 91 tackles, eight tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks and two forced fumbles.
Now Brinkley is vying for another starting job, curiously taking the middle linebacker spot previously held by Erin Henderson’s brother, E.J. It’s just another lesson in the business of the NFL for Erin. E.J. has been a Viking since the younger Erin came aboard in 2008. But E.J. is now 31 and was caught in Minnesota’s quest to become younger. E.J. also entered free agency like Erin, and E.J. is still out there.
“It’s part of the business,” Erin Henderson said. “It is what it is, you know? I keep going with it and take it from there.”
Erin is a quick study. He keeps preparing, hoping to have another strong season and finally earn that multiyear deal. Another quality year as a starter and the contract could come from the Vikings. A slip-up and those deals will be hard to find again.
But Henderson knows the realities all too well. He said he’s doesn’t use his one-year contract as motivation and that he’s “forgot about it already.” He has one more year to prove himself, and no extra motivation needed.
“You’ve got to improve,” Henderson said. “The moment you get complacent is the moment someone’s going to run you out the door.”
Henderson is hoping he doesn’t learn that reality any time soon.