Erin Henderson finds himself at a career crossroads. Entering his second year as a starter for the Vikings in a changing linebacker corps and in the final year of his rookie contract, he knows that 2012 – for better or worse – will be the most important of his career.
Whether in terms of his role with the team or the financial security that a multi-year contract gives a player and his family, 2012 will be a watershed season for Henderson. He will have the opportunity to show the Vikings that he can be a starter for years to come. But he can't let money matters get in the way of preparation and said he's trying his best to push the idea of being in a contract year out of his mind.
"You can't dwell on those types of things," Henderson said. "This is a business and everybody had to come to training camp ready to work hard and prove what they can do. I have to prove myself worthy of keeping my starting job, so that's my focus."
This season is a different experience for Henderson for a couple of significant reasons. This is the first full offseason he has experienced as a starting outside linebacker – last year he won the starting job but didn't have the offseason preparation due to the lockout. He also faces his first NFL season without his brother E.J. alongside him.
E.J. had been a fixture of the Vikings defense from 2003-11 but was not re-signed by the Vikings and remains an unsigned free agent. Erin is entering his first training camp without his big brother to give him pointers and share film study. Does that make this year's training camp a little strange?
"It is and it isn't," Henderson said. "It's different not having my brother here with me because he had been here for my first three years and I learned a lot from him. But I don't have any control over those types of things, so I can't concern myself with it. All I can do is go out and keep learning, try to improve and be the best player I can be. I'm just grinding it out through camp, so, from that side of things, it isn't weird. It's normal."
Given the truncated offseason last year, Henderson was learning his starting assignments on the fly, replacing Ben Leber in the starting lineup. He went through the typical peaks and valleys of a first-year starter, but assessed his first season as positive but far from polished.
"I thought I played O.K.," Henderson said. "I did some things well. There were things that I could have done better that I will do better this year. There's no substitution for experience. I got out there last year and got the chance to what I could do and what I couldn't do. I learned what plays I could make and what I had to go back to the drawing board and do better at. I think you're going to see a lot of improvement from me this year out on the field."
That anticipated improvement could go a long way to providing Henderson and his family with the financial security he is seeking. He came to the Vikings as an undrafted free agent – a move many thought was simply because his brother was on the team, a point seemingly confirmed by general manager Rick Spielman when he said that Erin comes "from a good NFL bloodline." But Erin has transformed himself from a roster novelty to a bona fide starter, and if he has the type of season he is anticipating he might have the chance to get the contract he wants.
While the payday that is expected to come down the line can creep into the back of his mind, Henderson said he isn't putting undue pressure on himself. The NFL game is hard enough to keep one's full concentration without complicating matters by worrying about a new contract.
"This game is pressure-packed enough without putting extra pressure on yourself," Henderson said. "I don't really think about my contract. I'll let that take care of itself. When the time comes and it gets to that point, I've learned through this offseason that that's not my responsibility. I've got to take care of what I need to do on the field and let my agent and the guys upstairs (in the Vikings organization) take care of what they have to take care of as far as my contract goes."
While he isn't sure how that process will play out, one thing he is clear about is that he wants to remain a Viking after the 2012 season. He is excited about the youth movement that is afoot with the team and wants to be part of the rebuilding and the return to greatness.
"That's my goal," Henderson said. "I love Minnesota and the guys on this team. I think we have something special going and I want to be part of that process of getting back to the top. Hopefully, everything will work out, but I have to do my part this year to make sure that it does and that I'm a Viking for a long time to come."
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
Henderson thinking football over financials
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