Vikings linebacker Erin Henderson wants a heightened role. He wants more freedom on defense. He wants to use his athleticism and mobility and hunger to make big plays. And now he may be getting the greatest opportunity of his career. Heading into his sixth season and with the Vikings still looking to find a three-down middle linebacker, Henderson will get the first shot at locking down that role. Last year’s starter at middle linebacker, Jasper Brinkley, left for Arizona during free agency. And when the Vikings passed on the opportunity to draft a middle linebacker three times on the first night of last weekend’s NFL Draft, the door opened for Henderson to give things a try, an opportunity he’s been waiting for and preparing for since the end of last season.
On Wednesday morning at Winter Park, Henderson took a break from the team’s strength and conditioning workouts to meet with reporters. Here’s what he had to say …
What are your thoughts here on possibly sliding inside here to play middle linebacker?
I’m excited for the opportunity, man. My time here has been spent playing the will linebacker. But I got a taste of that mike and what it’s about when I’ve had the chance to play in those nickel situations. I look forward to the challenge. It’s something new for me to learn, something new for me to put my brain to and help me refocus a little bit with the kind of work and time I have to put in in order for us to be successful.
When did they first talk to you about the possibility of moving to middle linebacker?
It was kind of early in the offseason. It was something I kind of threw out there to Coach Pug [linebackers coach Fred Pagac]. Just letting him know I was more than capable of doing it and more than willing to make that transition if they needed me to. Now it’s just a matter of going out there and showing improvement and letting everybody know that they made the right decision.
So is that where you expect to be?
Right now, yeah. That’s what I expect. But you never really know how things go and what things they might talk about as we move forward and what they might decide that they want to do. Right now, that’s where my mind is, that’s what I’m studying and that’s what I’m trying to prepare myself for.
What’s going to be the biggest difference for you if you do end up inside?
Honestly, you guys won’t see the stat lines with two tackles, four tackles anymore. People won’t be able to give me a hard time about that. I’ll be in the middle, I’ll be able to move around a little bit and use my best ability, which I think is my agility and my ability to run from sideline to sideline. So I’ll have a chance to do that and be involved in more of the plays. I think that will be one of the biggest differences for me. I’ve already had to make checks and make corrections and different things like that playing the nickel mike. I think people understand in this day and age, 75 percent of the game is played against the nickel package anyway. So more times than not, I was running the show already. Now it’s a matter of doing it full-time when we come out to practice and everything else. I’m excited about the opportunity. I look forward to it.
Personality-wise, are you now at a point in your career to take that next step and be a guy calling the shots?
Oh yeah. I think I have the respect and trust of my teammates and my coaches. Which I think is very important, especially when you’re put into a leadership role and they’re asking you to do certain things. I think them moving me to that position and giving me a chance to play it shows that they trust me upstairs. I love the locker room that we have and the guys who look up to me and respect me for what I’ve done and what I want to be able to do in the future. As well as how I carry myself around here. I’m not mean to anybody. I’m not rude to anybody. If anybody has a question, they can come talk to me and ask me whatever they want to know, whether that be on the field or off the field. I think it’s a good fit.
What changes do you make preparation-wise for this move to middle linebacker?
I’m coming back a little bit heavier this year. In the past I’ve been 240 or lighter. Right now I’m about 248, 249. I know I’m going to have to have a little bit more lead in my pencil so to speak when you’re playing in the middle, playing that mike. So it’s just that and getting a little bit stronger at the point of attack and being able to take the next step from there.
Do you tap your older brother, E.J., for tips at all?
Not quite yet. I’m going to pick his brain a little bit. [But I want to] figure out some stuff on my own. And that way I can ask better questions and better know what to present to him and what he can really help me out with.
Did you come close to leaving here in free agency?
Nah. Not really. You get a chance to talk to people every now and again. And you hear some things from different teams. But I knew this is where I wanted to be. I knew this is where I wanted to play. I understood the opportunity that may be afforded to me here. There’s also a certain comfort level that comes along with being in a place going on six years now with the same coaches. And having the opportunity to build the relationship that’s there.
So were you preparing for this move to the middle early on after last season ended?
In my brain, yeah. Even though they wouldn’t really give me a definite answer or let me know what might happen. I knew the draft would play a big part of it. But it’s something I was kind of anticipating and hoping came into fruition.
You talked at the end of last year or making sure you stay home on defense and are in the right spot doing what’s asked of you. How do you get over that hurdle of making sure you’re doing that as consistently as you can?
When you’re playing the mike, it’s not as big of a deal. It’s not quite the same. Playing the will, you pretty much have to stay on that backside B gap no matter what’s happening. The ball could be going the other way and you want to go chase and you want to go be a part of the action. And then the running back might make a cut and get back through your B gap. It’s not really the same kind of situation once you move over to that mike. You still have to stay at home, still have to stick to your responsibilities. But I think they give you a little bit more freedom here at the mike to go find the ball and make plays.
So has the coaching staff talked to you even in the past couple of days, since the draft, since they didn’t draft a middle linebacker high, that this is where you have to be zoned in?
They pretty much told me, coming into OTAs, I’m going to be at the middle spot. It’s just a matter of me going out there. And the best three ‘backers will play. That’s what they told us. So now I have to go out there and take care of business.
More from Star Tribune
More From Access Vikings
Team opens at St. Louis on Oct. 13; home opener is two days later against Winnipeg.
The Vikings have the 23rd overall pick in the April draft.
Coach Zimmer remains convinced Bridgewater will start against the Raiders
The Vikings have mentioned in their pregame literature that fans will be directed to Williams, Mariucci or Ridder Arenas in case a storm disrupts the game at TCF Bank Stadium.
Vikings open preseason against the Raiders at TCF Bank Stadium.