Henderson embraces stability, opportunity

It took Erin Henderson four years to become an NFL starter, but this year he has more stability than ever, and that goes beyond his contract. On the field, at least in practice, life is getting easier and simpler, too.

Professional life is much different for Erin Henderson these days. His position has changed, his status has changed and he has a little bit more roster and financial security.

Henderson has proven he can survive; now he is looking to thrive. His two-year, $4 million contract signed in March gives him stability for the first time in a long time.

The 6-foot-3, 244-pound linebacker started his career as an undrafted rookie that joined the team where his brother, E.J., was an integral part of the defense as the starting middle linebacker. That first year, in 2008, Erin played in 10 games, starting none. Little did he know that was about as good as it would get in the first three seasons of his career. Over the next two seasons, he played in a combined 11 games, starting none.

But in 2011, after the departure of Ben Leber, Henderson got his shot as a weakside linebacker, playing in 15 game with 11 starts, and last year he played in 14 games, starting 10, in addition to starting the first playoff game of his career.

Still, he played in only 60 percent of the snaps last year, in part due to a concussion that forced him out of action for two games but also because he wasn't always used in the team's nickel defense (he and Jasper Brinkley share time there). That appears to be changing this year, despite the addition of veteran starting linebacker Desmond Bishop.

Henderson spent the offseason transitioning to middle linebacker after the Vikings made little effort to re-sign Brinkley in free agency. It was a position switch Henderson fully embraced, even lobbied for, because it would presumably allow him to become a full-time, three-down linebacker.

"I feel like I've had a chance to get a taste of that three-down linebacker. I think I'm more than capable of getting that done," Henderson said after a training camp practice. "I think once you go into the middle and you kind of play the Mike (middle) here, it kind of becomes the next progression of the whole thing, that you kind of become a three-down linebacker and you're in charge as the guy with the green sticker on the helmet and you're the one running the huddle time in and time out. But I still have to go out there and perform and take care of what I need to take care of in order for me to secure that spot."

The green sticker means Henderson has the communication connection to the sideline for making calls in the defensive huddle. It also means he is likely to be the linebacker that remains on the field in the nickel defense, along with veteran strongside linebacker Chad Greenway.

But Henderson will be asked to improve his coverage skills, which, along with the position switch, was an emphasis for him this offseason.

"It was a big focus for me. It was something that I really wanted to hone in on. I think now with just having to play one position, I'm able to focus on that and the techniques that are necessary in order to play the Mike backer as opposed to learning two different things at practice and bouncing from one drill to another drill in order to make sure I've got that different work in to take care of different things," he said. "So now that I can just focus on playing the Mike, I'm able to work on the techniques on a consistent basis and just come out every day and continue to improve on it."

Last year, Henderson was considered the starter on the weak side. But when the Vikings were in their nickel defense, which could be for more than 50 percent of the defensive plays, he was asked to play the techniques used by the middle linebacker in pass coverage.

That dual role required him to move from one group to the next during practices, too.

"When we're in individual periods and things like that, I would have to work with the Mikes for one part of it and then go with the Wills (weakside linebackers) for another part of it, so I never really had a chance to work at that one thing and get better at it and perfect the craft of it," he said. "So this offseason I've had a chance to do that and I think it's been very beneficial to me. Now it's just a matter of keep coming out here and continuing to work at it, continuing to get better."

When the Vikings signed Bishop to a one-year free agent contract in June, the assumption was that he could play middle linebacker and would force Henderson back to the weak side because Bishop was an inside linebacker in the Green Bay Packers' 3-4 defensive scheme. However, head coach Leslie Frazier announced at the start of training camp that Henderson would remain in the middle and Bishop's blitzing ability would be welcome on the weak side.

Essentially, that means the middle linebacker position is Henderson's to lose. Barring injury, he isn't likely to surrender his starting status.

"My biggest thing for me is to make sure I take care of my responsibility and my job and doing everything I can to help this team be successful and help us win," Henderson said. "So my thing was as long as they were going to give me this chance to play Mike, make the best of it and do everything in my power to hold onto the position and don't make it easy for them to take it away from me."

For Henderson, little has come easily, but the opportunity to concentrate on one position and be on the field as a three-down linebacker is a welcome convergence of circumstance and improvement.

Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.

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