Erin Henderson refines game, increases role

Erin Henderson spent the first two years of his NFL career trying to find his place on the roster. This offseason, he's trying to improve his standing with teammates and coaches and appears to be a primary backup among linebackers. The third-year player talked about the adjustments on the field in the first of a two-part series on him.

Linebacker Erin Henderson said he's had a "very productive offseason" and is working to improve some things he realized needed work.

From technical aspects of playing the position to the mental attitude needed to excel, Henderson has found plenty of areas to shore up. But he hasn't lost his desire to prove NFL scouts wrong that passed him up repeatedly throughout the NFL draft two years ago.

And, yet, he knows it's on him to prove himself.

"I've always kind of carried a chip on my shoulder and I don't feel I've done anything to this point to really earn any respect or any trust from anybody," he said. "That's always been something I've need to work on, so it was really a matter of something I needed to get back as much as it was continuing to try to work and continuing to try to earn it from my teammates and my coaches."

The adjustments must be working, as Erin, the younger brother of middle linebacker E.J. Henderson, is expected to be a primary backup at both outside linebacker spots this year.

"Erin Henderson has shown signs in the past of having a lot of talent and having a lot of ability to play linebacker and I think he's going to be our primary backup at (the outside) linebacker positions," fellow linebacker Heath Farwell said. "… He's done a good job in spring in minicamps and OTAs (organized team activities). He's very intelligent, where he's able to pick up all three positions, and I think he'll be a key backup if one guy goes down."

While E.J. has sat out of the OTAs as he continues to work his way back from a fractured femur, Erin is working his way back into the coaches' graces after he was suspended for the final three regular-season games and the first playoff game last season for violating the league's policy on performance-enhancing substances.

Six months later, Erin's outlook is much more optimistic. With Ben Leber and Chad Greenway not participating in all the OTA sessions because of their veteran status, Henderson is being used as a first-team linebacker in the base and nickel defensive packages.

"I've always believed in my heart of hearts that that's where I was supposed to be and that's where I belonged and that's where I'm supposed to end up when it's all said and done. So it wasn't like a shock to me or it wasn't like a change to me," he of practicing with the remnants of the first-team defense that have been participating in OTAs. "I'm coming into my third season, and once you start to come into your own and once you start to get comfortable in the same defense and the same coaches and the same defensive coordinator, it's not really a big change or a big jump. It's just a matter of going out there and showing and proving it and earning the respect of your teammates."

That's a change from how things started and ended last season. He was inactive for the first seven games. In his first opportunity back in the lineup, he had two special teams tackles. Six weeks later, he tied for the team lead with three special teams tackles.

Henderson played in only those two games last year after ranking fourth on the team for special teams tackles as a rookie in 2008, despite playing in only 10 games.

He realizes that special teams will have to be his initial calling card this year, even if he is a primary backup at linebacker. Special teams were the first things he mentioned when asked about his top-end expectations for this year.

"Really digging in on special teams and becoming the special teams guy that my teammates need me to be," he said. "I know once given the opportunity I can do that and just go out there and continue to perform if that's what they need me to do. If something were to happen to Ben or something were to happen to Chad, then step up and be ready so they know that Erin can do things if we need him to step up in this situation. Or maybe they might be able to rotate me in for a series or two on defense. I'm just hoping for the best."

Farwell knows all about making a living off special teams prowess. He's been doing it for five years and

"As a backup linebacker, you've got to prove how you're important to the team. As a backup at any position, but especially linebacker, you'd better play well on special teams or prove that you're so valuable as a backup that they can't rid of you," Farwell said. "That's just part of being a backup. They're always trying to replace you and you've got to prove that your value is more than the next guy."

In order to prove his value, Henderson needed to learn a few things. One of those involved a technical side of the game.

"Just playing with better knee bend. Coach Pug (linebackers coach Fred Pagac) always told me from the preseason, had I had my knees bent I would have only had to have taken one step instead of taking two steps – and that's the difference in making a tackle for loss or making a tackle for a gain of two yards," Henderson said. "Just little things like that. Nothing major, nothing big. I just had to get going and retune and refine my whole game, just little things that I was missing.

"Now I understand the defense much better. I understand what offenses want that much better. When I play with that knee bend and play with that as an added second nature and not having to think about it, it's a whole different ballgame out there for me."

He also had to get comfortable with everything surrounding him, including a new scheme, new teammates and new coaches when he joined the Vikings as an undrafted rookie in 2008.

Now he's feeling more comfortable with his situation, which he believes will allow his natural athletic abilities to be displayed more easily.

"I had to learn how to use my abilities. I think all too often I got kind of caught up in my coaches and what they were telling me and got kind of robotic at times and I was not really using my instincts," he said. "That's what got me here. That's what got me to where I'm at today is being an instinctive football player and going out there and being able to make plays. I think at times I kind of lost sight of that and kind of was like, OK, this is my job, this is what I have to do, go do it. That was it. It wasn't, I did my job, now I'm going to go see if I can make a play. I think a little bit last year when I got a chance to go out there and make a play I did that. I had five tackles in two games. I was very productive out there as far as punt return goes and different things like that."

Editor's note: Erin Henderson also talked about making changes off the field, which will profile in a story tomorrow.

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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