The Vikings had the salary cap space to bring back Napoleon Harris, their starting middle linebacker last season, but they opted to let him pursue other offers. Harris landed a lucrative contract with the Kansas City Chiefs, signing a six-year deal for $24 million, including a $7.5 million signing bonus.
The deal was very similar to what the Vikings had re-signed E.J. Henderson for late last season, as Henderson got a five-year extension for $25 million, with about $10 million in guaranteed money.
Letting Harris walk was not a minor decision by the Vikings’ personnel people. After all, the cap space was there. And, when you have a highly-ranked defense, you don’t take it lightly to just watch key players in that defense walk. But the reasoning was twofold: 1) they obviously had a lot of confidence in Henderson’s ability to continue to excel back inside, and 2) they needed to create a spot for Chad Greenway at weakside linebacker.
A bold move for sure, but there is every reason to believe it will work out just fine. After all, Henderson himself has always preferred playing in the middle. It’s where he is most comfortable. Until the Vikings brought in stopgap veteran Sam Cowart in the scheme Ted Cottrell was running in the final year of the Mike Tice regime, Henderson had always played in the middle.
The biggest key to Henderson’s emergence last season was the better fit the Tampa-2 defensive scheme run by Mike Tomlin represented for him. The linebackers play a little further off the ball and have a little more freedom to fly to the ball, something that has always been a strength of Henderson’s game.
In Cottrell’s system, more discipline within the scheme was required which, to some degree, constrained a player like Henderson, who excels when he can rely on his instincts and run to the ball.
That’s why his productivity surged last season. The scheme gave him more freedom. Plus, he was in a “featured” position within that scheme as the weakside linebacker.
Henderson’s statistical performance tracks with the “fit-to-the-system” theory.
As a rookie seeing limited playing time behind Greg Biekert, he collected 23 tackles as he began to see increased playing time late that season (2003) as Biekert’s skills eroded.
In 2004, he started at MLB in Cottrell’s defense and led the team with 125 tackles, 7 tackles-for-loss, 7 passes defensed and 4 quarterback hurries in what was a mediocre defense overall.
Despite being replaced by the acquisition of Cowart the following off-season, Henderson forced to coaches to keep him on the field in 2005. He moved to weakside linebacker and recorded 74 tackles, one sack, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery.
He had a breakout season in the Vikings new defense last year, starting all 16 games and finishing the season with 142 tackles, 19 quarterback hurries, 3 sacks, 2 interceptions (one returned 45 yards for a touchdown), one forced fumble and 2 fumbles recovered.
Despite the breakout numbers, Henderson’s best position in the Tomlin scheme or the tweaked version of it that will be run by new defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier is in the middle.
Why? Because whatever athletic limitations Henderson has at weakside linebacker, they are more difficult to isolate in the middle. But for the middle, especially in this scheme, his athletic ability and range and very good.
Another factor that could emerge with Henderson in 2007 is the fact that he’s actually a much more effective inside blitzer than off the edge, an element many onlookers expect Frazier to utilize a bit more given his Buddy Ryan-Jim Johnson background.
Henderson just doesn’t have the size, leverage or pure closing speed to consistently beat blockers off the edge. Blitzing from the inside depends much more on instincts, timing and explosiveness – all characteristics that suit his game nicely.
Athletically, Greenway has all the tools to excel in the position Henderson played last season. In fact, he’s better suited to step out and cover receivers in the slot than Henderson. So in the end, with no disrespect intended to Harris or Henderson’s play of a year ago, the Viking defense could conceivably be slightly better at both positions.