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Erin Henderson will open OTAs in middle, has bulked up for new spot

by Tom Pelissero, 1500ESPN.com Updated 17 months ago | 3838 reads

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- Erin Henderson will open organized team activity practices this month as the Minnesota Vikings' middle linebacker.

At least that's what coaches have told him after the Vikings passed on using a high pick in last week's NFL Draft to fill their most unsettled position.

"They pretty much told me -- coming into OTAs, I'm going to be at the middle spot," Henderson said on Wednesday. "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've got to go out there and take care of business."

Henderson, 26, signed a two-year, $4 million contract extension with the Vikings in March after two up-and-down seasons at weakside linebacker.

He said he approached co-linebackers coach Fred Pagac early in the offseason to make clear he was willing and able to fill the spot manned for eight years by his brother, E.J. Henderson, before Jasper Brinkley took over in 2012.

"Even though they wouldn't really give me a definite answer or let me know what might happen, I knew that the draft would play a big part of it," Henderson said. "But it was something that I kind of was anticipating and hoping came to fruition."

Once Brinkley signed with Arizona, Henderson's preparations began. He already has added weight for the position, bulking up to 248 or 249 pounds on his 6-foot-3 frame after playing at 240 or under in the past. (He was listed at 244.)

"I know I have to have a little bit more lead in my pencil, so to speak," Henderson said. "When you're playing in the middle (the key is) just getting a little bit stronger at the point of attack and being able to take the next step from there."

Henderson has some experience at the position, having split time with Brinkley as the nickel mike last season. He had issues in coverage and always has struggled with gap discipline, but strongside linebacker Chad Greenway said the tape players have been watching since the offseason strength and conditioning program began shows he can develop into the position.

"The instincts are there. His ability's there," Greenway said. "I think he's got to do it full-time to get the feel starting, if that's what the case is going to be.

"It means a lot to start doing that Day 1 of training camp. It's hard when you kind of maybe get that job three, four weeks in and all of a sudden, now you're there (and) you haven't gotten all those meaningful reps early in camp. So, if that's how it shakes out, I think that would be really great for him and he's got the range, got the length. He's got the ability to play there for sure."

Henderson and Brinkley also split time making the defensive calls last season, with Greenway handling those duties in the dime defense -- which isn't ideal.

"I think one consistent voice is always the best," Greenway said. "So, I'm thinking we'll probably get that this year."

Of course, Henderson still has to show he's the man for the job. He acknowledged on Wednesday that "you never really know how things go" but also emphasized his greatest weakness in the past -- a tendency to get out of position -- may not be as big an issue at the mike.

"Playing the will, you pretty much just have to stay on that backside 'B' gap no matter what's happening," Henderson said. "The ball could be going the other way and you want to go chase and you want to go be part of the action. The running back might make a cut and get back to your 'B' gap.

"It's not really the same kind of situation when you move over to that mike. You still have to stay at home. You 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."

It wasn't clear how the Vikings will go into OTAs at Henderson's old spot, although they'll get a look at one candidate this weekend, when fourth-round pick Gerald Hughes and the rest of their draft class arrive at Winter Park for the rookie minicamp.

Continuing to play Henderson only in the base defense and going with Greenway and someone else in nickel could be an option, too. But coach Leslie Frazier has made clear he prefers to have one mike linebacker playing all three downs.

Has Henderson reached out to his brother for some advice?

"Not quite yet," Henderson said. "I'm going to pick his brain a little bit. 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."

Tom Pelissero is Senior Editor and columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He hosts from 6 to 8 p.m. weeknights and co-hosts from 10 a.m. to noon Sundays on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
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