EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — When Minnesota Vikings general manager Rick Spielman spoke of linebacker Erin Henderson’s versatility last week, the intent seemed focused on leaving open any possibility as Spielman attacked the draft.
Spielman said Henderson, who’s started the past two seasons as the weakside linebacker for Minnesota, could move inside if needed. The comment, at the time, was interesting but didn’t reflect an overriding belief Henderson was indeed moving to middle linebacker.
Henderson, though, has been preparing for a move for months and said Wednesday he expects to play in the middle. The idea of moving Henderson inside has had more traction than just a seemingly innocuous comment from Spielman.
“It was kind of early in the offseason,” Henderson said, while working out as part of the team’s offseason conditioning program. “It was something I kind of threw out there to (linebackers coach Fred Pagac). Just letting him know I was more than capable of doing it and more than willing to make that transition if they needed me to. Now it’s just a matter of going out there and showing improvement and letting everybody know that they made the right decision.”
Entering the offseason, the Vikings had Henderson and middle linebacker Jasper Brinkley both reaching unrestricted free agency. It seemed unlikely Minnesota would re-sign both of them. Soon after Henderson, 26, agreed to a two-year, $4 million contract with the Vikings, Brinkley signed with the Arizona Cardinals.
Henderson said coaches have told him he’s likely to start at middle linebacker when organized team activities begin later this summer and he’s been focused on playing in the middle, even bulking up to about 249 pounds now after saying he’s played 240 pounds or lighter.
“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,” Henderson said. “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.”
Henderson added: “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.”
Minnesota neglected to draft a middle linebacker early in last week’s draft. Perhaps because of Henderson’s flexibility, the Vikings eventually made Penn State outside linebacker Gerald Hodges the first linebacker they selected, in the fourth round. Later, they added Penn State middle linebacker Michael Mauti in the seventh round. With Henderson inside, the leading veteran option on the outside would likely be Marvin Mitchell, who started two games for Minnesota last year when Henderson was injured.
As Henderson said, “It’s just a matter of me going out there and the best three backers will play. That’s what they told us. So now I have to go out there and take care of business.”
Chad Greenway, the starter on the strongside, feels Henderson fits well inside.
“You turn on the film, we’ve been watching a lot of film these last two weeks, the instincts are there,” Greenway said. “His ability is there. I think he’s got to do it full-time to get a feel starting, if that’s the case it’s going to be. You know it means a lot to start doing that Day 1 at training camp. It’s hard when maybe you get a job three or four weeks in, all of a sudden now you’re there without all those meaningful reps early in camp. So if that’s how it shakes out, I think it’ll be really great for him. He’s got the range. He’s got the length. I mean, he’s got the ability to play there for sure.”
Henderson wanted to return to Minnesota, the team that originally gave him a chance as an undrafted free agent out of Maryland in 2008, and was finally rewarded with a contract longer than one season after having to settle for a one-year deal as a free agent in 2012.
Now, he might be taking the spot his brother, E.J., once manned for several years. Erin said he hasn’t talked to his brother yet about the responsibilities of being in the middle of the Vikings’ defense.
“I’m going to pick his brain a little bit, figure out some stuff on my own,” Henderson said. “And that way I can ask better questions and better know what to present to him and what he can really help me out with.”
Henderson has worked his way up from special teams to a starting spot the past two years. In 14 games last season, Henderson had 80 tackles, three sacks, and one forced fumble. The season before, his first as a starter, Henderson had 70 tackles, 1.5 sacks and two forced fumbles.
Henderson sees a significant change in those numbers if the move to the middle sticks.
“Honestly, you guys won’t see the stat lines with two tackles, four tackles anymore,” Henderson said. “People won’t be able to give me a hard time about that. 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.”