Growing Process Slowing For Henderson

Entering his second professional season, E.J. Henderson has the speed and talent to take over as the starting middle linebacker, but where does he need to improve? Find out what he and head coach Mike Tice had to say about his progression to the starting ranks.

It is a familiar April story for NFL fans. A highly touted college player isn't drafted where he is projected and the NFL team that finally selects him thinks it got a steal.

Such was the case with Vikings middle linebacker E.J. Henderson, a second-round pick in last year's draft who is expected to take over the starting role this season. The Vikings believe in his talents and his ability to start — maybe even star — but he needs his potential to shine through on each play.

"We need to have E.J. understand that because he's the leader in the middle there he needs to continue to improve on being consistent with his intensity," head coach Mike Tice said at last weekend's minicamp. "That's the best way to describe it. I spoke to him about that this morning, and that's not a bad thing. It's that young guys at times lose focus, and we need him to be consistent with intensity every single down. "

Henderson played last season with a torn rotator cuff, but he didn't show any signs of that at minicamp. He did, however, step on another player during the last day of minicamp practice but is expected to be ready for June developmental camps.

In his second year, Henderson is stepping in for 11-year veteran Greg Biekert, who was a saving force in his first year with the Vikings, 2002, but showed signs of losing his speed last season and retired last month. Henderson is expected to be up to the challenge.

"If I didn't think (Henderson) was ready, then I would have brought a free agent (middle linebacker) in," Tice said. "Is he as experienced and as intelligent a football player as Greg Biekert? No, I think we'd be insulting Greg if we said that. Is he faster and quicker than Greg Biekert was last year? Yeah. Is he more instinctive? I don't know, but I think we're going to pass the baton to him, and hopefully he'll be able to step up to the challenge.

"Does that mean he's an every-down player or does that mean he's a first- and second -down player and we alleviate some thinking and take him off in nickel because last year he just played nickel? We'll just see how that goes. I'd love to have a Mike linebacker that stayed on the field every down, but we're certainly not going to give him too much. He played a lot last year; he ended up starting nickel more than half the season and he played pretty (dang) good with a torn rotator cuff."

Said Henderson about his discussions with Tice: "We had a meeting, and I just talked about feeling comfortable. I need to get better as far as pass concepts, helping the DBs out a little better. I'd like to get my hands on some balls, get some picks. Probably my strength is getting downfield, in the backfield, a strong tackler sideline-to-sideline."

Henderson and Mike Nattiel were the nickel linebackers in minicamp, just where they left off at the end of last season. The progress in a year, however, is a great thing for Henderson — especially the difference between minicamp 2003 and minicamp 2004.

"It's a lot easier, man, a lot smoother," Henderson said. "It's a lot slower. We're putting in a new defense. It's totally different. (Defensive coordinator Ted) Cottrell is more of a laid-back type of guy. Scheme-wise, it's not too different (from former coordinator George O'Leary's defense last year)."

If he can be an every-down linebacker, he does have the speed to potentially create more turnovers than Biekert did during his solid career. Veteran presence is something Henderson appreciated during his one-year apprenticeship.

What did he learn for the now-retired Biekert? "Maturity. A lot of maturity. How to be a pro," Henderson said. "Scheme-wise, he knew everything that was going on."

By the start of his second season, Henderson is hoping his coaches and coordinator will be saying the same thing about him.

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