Updated: July 26th, 2013 6:26pm
Zulgad: All smiles for now but Vikings' LB competition must play out

Zulgad: All smiles for now but Vikings' LB competition must play out

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by Judd Zulgad
1500ESPN.com

MANKATO, Minn. -- Desmond Bishop was surrounded by television cameras after the Minnesota Vikings' first practice of training camp on Friday when Erin Henderson came up and put his arm around his new teammate.

"How awesome is Erin Henderson playing?" Henderson said.

"Man, the guy is awesome," Bishop responded, playing along. "He's pretty funny, too."

"I think Desmond Bishop is a great guy, too," Henderson said. "We're probably going to be best friends before it's all said and done. Just wanted to interrupt your interview for that, just to let you guys know."

The fact Henderson and Bishop were in good moods came as no surprise. For now, both are getting what they want.

Henderson opened camp as the Vikings' middle linebacker, the position he was moved to this offseason and then made clear he had no intention of relinquishing. When Bishop signed a one-year, $850,000 contract in late June it was assumed he might play in the middle and Henderson would move back to the weak side, where he started the past two seasons.

Bishop, meanwhile, was just happy to be back on the field, regardless of where he lined up. The fact it was at weak-side linebacker was just fine with him. Friday marked his first time back since he suffered a torn hamstring last Aug. 9 while playing for Green Bay in a preseason game at San Diego.

"I think it went really well," said Bishop, who had no restrictions in what he was allowed to do. "It was my first time in a long time just lining up and playing football, calling plays and running around, so I really felt like a kid in a candy store. I had so much fun. It's been so long. I missed playing. So I think I did really good. ...

"I was very eager (to get back on the field). You can do all the running. But nothing is like football and this is my first step to really get back. I had so much fun just lining up and I felt like I was at home. So this is just one step. Just got to keep focusing and getting better and when the pads come that'll be a whole different thing. So I'm just looking forward."

What will be interesting to see as camp unfolds is whether Henderson and Bishop remain in such good spirits.

As long as Bishop is able to stay healthy, he likely will be fine. The seventh-year veteran has played linebacker in both 4-3 and 3-4 defenses throughout his career and has spent time at every linebacker position. He played inside in the Packers' 3-4 look in 2010 and 2011.

Henderson's happiness is another story.

Coach Leslie Frazier is smart enough to know that Henderson has his heart set on playing middle linebacker and Frazier also realizes he promised the veteran that opportunity. There are many coaches who would tell Henderson "too bad" and open camp with Bishop in the middle.

That's not Frazier's style.

By having Henderson open camp in the middle, he presents the player with an opportunity to prove himself and ease Bishop back into game conditions. If Henderson struggles, Frazier will have given him the opportunity and then can move Bishop to the middle. If Henderson proves to be successful in the middle, Bishop should be fine playing the outside in the base defense.

Frazier and defensive coordinator Alan Williams also are going to have to make an important decision about whether Bishop or Henderson remain on the field in nickel situations. Considering how much the Vikings are in the nickel, this will be just as important of call as who plays where in the base.

Henderson and Jasper Brinkley, who signed with Arizona as a free agent this past offseason, both saw time as the middle linebacker in the nickel in 2012, but neither one was able to grab hold of the job. Henderson did get the majority of the reps with the first-team nickel alongside Chad Greenway on Friday.

Frazier admitted that no final decisions about how any of this will shake out have been made.

"It's a little bit in flux with what we're trying to find out with Erin at the Mike linebacker and trying to identify who's going to be our starting Will linebacker," he said. "Chad is the one constant. He's been a cornerstone for us at the outside linebacker spot.

"We have to go through some things in this preseason, in this training camp and try to identify what that group is going to look like. We think we have the talent, we think we have the depth to be better than we have been, but we still have to go through some things to determine that prior to our first game of the season."

And if things don't work out the way Bishop or Henderson envision?

"I think we both realize that it's a team game, it's a team sport," Bishop said. "We're trying to do something special as a team, not necessarily as individuals. We all want to do our individual part, but it's about the big picture. We both realize that. We're just going to go out and compete and have fun and just kind of let the chips fall where they may and let the coaches decide all that stuff." 

Judd Zulgad is a columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays and "Saturday Morning SportsTalk" from 10 a.m. to noon on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Judd | @1500ESPNJudd | Mackey & Judd
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