Erin Henderson has spent his Vikings career as an outside linebacker, but two days before the NFL draft, when the Vikings are expected to consider selecting a middle linebacker in the first two rounds, general manager Rick Spielman said Henderson could be the potential solution at middle linebacker.
"That's flexible. That depends on what happens in the draft," Spielman said Tuesday. "If we go outside and Erin can slide inside … that's what is great about this linebacker thing. We have the flexibility to go either way."
Middle linebacker is one of the Vikings' most glaring needs. They will have a new starter at the position for the third season in a row. Last year, Jasper Brinkley took over for E.J. Henderson, Erin's older brother, when the Vikings decided to move on without E.J., who had been a starter for the majority of his nine-year career with the Vikings. The Vikings didn't make a big effort to re-sign Brinkley in free agency this year and he signed a multi-year deal with the Arizona Cardinals.
Erin Henderson told KFAN radio earlier this month that he would welcome a move to middle linebacker because it would mean he would be on the field more often. Last year, Henderson played in 59.8 percent of the defensive snaps. Brinkley played in 74.8 percent. The two split time as the nickel linebacker and both dealt with injuries that limited them a bit, as well.
"I know from a schematic standpoint, we're trying to get a three-down linebacker, a guy that has the athletic skill set to play all three downs," Spielman said when asked what he's looking for in a middle linebacker. "I know you see the Cover-2 and a lot of the stuff that we do on defense. Can he flip his hips and cover down the seam and do a lot of things like that?"
The Vikings have shown a lot of interest in Notre Dame middle linebacker Manti Te'o, perhaps the most high-profile player in the draft. In addition to interviewing him at the NFL Scouting Combine, Spielman reportedly had dinner with Te'o before his pro day.
But he cautioned that doesn't always mean the Vikings are locked into a player they are researching.
"Just because you guys read out in the papers that, hey, they must be very interested in this guy because they visited with him or went to dinner with him or went to do this or that – that has nothing to do with whether we're going to take the guy or not," Spielman said. "It's more honing in and making the decision on, is this guy the right fit or not the right fit?"
Other first-round options include LSU's Kevin Minter, Georgia's Alec Ogletree (a character concern) and Kansas State's Arthur Brown, who might be best-suited to outside linebacker.
Right now, the Vikings have only two returning starters at linebacker – Erin Henderson and Chad Greenway. Whether it's Henderson in the middle or a draft pick in the first two days, their linebacker situation should be much clearer by the weekend.
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.