Henderson hoping for another ‘prove-it' year

Erin Henderson has had to earn his way into the position he now finds himself – a starting middle linebacker in the NFL from his roots as an undrafted player. Step by step, he has conquered the challenges in front of him without worry too much about outside opinions.

Erin Henderson has always played with something of a chip on his shoulder. As an undrafted free agent, the early speculation was that the primary reason the Vikings signed him was because he was the brother of stalwart middle linebacker E.J. Henderson. He was often asked by media types if he thought it was genetics and not necessarily talent that got him his opportunity.

He's maintained that chip on his shoulder ever since. However, he has proved that it wasn't simply nepotism that got him on the roster. It may have factored in as part of giving him an opportunity to be there, but dozens of players get that same opportunity every year and never make the 53-man roster. Henderson may have had some assistance in getting the door to open, but he kicked in it and made the most of his opportunity.

That was five years ago. After spending three years as a special teams performer, Henderson replaced Ben Leber at outside linebacker and skeptics had their doubts that Henderson could handle it. He's been a starter the last two seasons. When Jasper Brinkley left via free agency, the Vikings made the decision to move Henderson to middle linebacker – a move that the coaching staff hasn't wavered from since it was first announced prior to April's draft. The decision was one again met with public doubts.

"People always wonder," Henderson said. "That's something I've come to learn and come to accept. But, as long my guys in here (the locker room) know what I'm about and know who I am, that's all that matters to me."

There have been questions about whether Henderson would be the permanent fix at middle linebacker or just a short-term solution. When the Vikings signed inside linebacker Desmond Bishop after he was released by the Packers, the initial thought was that Bishop would move to middle linebacker and Henderson would return to his spot on the outside. That hasn't happened.

The Vikings have been satisfied with the job Henderson has done calling out the plays and making the adjustment inside. It wasn't as if he had no experience on the inside, he has played in the middle before and the team has maintained its confidence in him as the team's man in the middle.

"I think my previous time in the nickel package and playing the Mike a little bit helped me to move over and make the transition a little bit easier for me," Henderson said. "Standing in front of the huddle allowed the guys to have a comfort level with me already, as well as a respect level. When I go stand out in front of those guys, they feel comfortable with me and vice versa. It's been an easy transition."

Henderson is convinced that comfort level will translate into the regular season. While there have been some adjustments with the linebacker corps, he has seen improvement in the second level of the Vikings defense and expects that improvement to continue as the seasons goes along.

"I've think we've done some good things," Henderson said. "We've got a good feel of who we are and what we are. It's just a matter of building on that, growing from there and trying to continue to improve week in and week out."

For a team that has a lot of the component pieces to compete for the NFC North title – the best running back in the game, continuity on the offensive line, Pro Bowl players in Jared Allen, Chad Greenway, Kyle Rudolph, Greg Jennings, John Sullivan and Matt Kalil and five first-round draft picks over the last two years – the Vikings have reason for optimism. But Henderson said the team is focused on getting their mission accomplished one week at time and maintaining focus on doing the little things that will win enough games to reach their goal without looking at the bigger picture that most fans and media seem obsessed with.

"You've got to take care of business each week," Henderson said. "You can't get too far ahead of yourself. You can't get too excited about what may be in the future or you lose sight of what's in the present. We've got to go out there and take care of business every time we step on the field. We understand that and have a good grasp of that. We'll let the rest of it take care of itself."

There is still a fair share of those who doubt Henderson. He's had them before and has proved them wrong. He still has a chip on his shoulder, but it has calcified at this point and may be permanent. As long as he keeps showing his skeptics that they're wrong, he will continue to be a key to the success of the Vikings defense.

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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