EDEN PRAIRIE, Minnesota — The Minnesota Vikings were widely expected to make a middle linebacker one of their high draft picks to address perhaps the largest void on an otherwise-promising roster.
Their expected starter at this critical position, though, was on the team all along. Erin Henderson, who played the weak side spot last season, has been given the first opportunity to take over. The 26-year-old said Wednesday he was told by the coaches a few months ago to prepare accordingly. So he's put on about 10 pounds to his 6-foot-3 frame to near 250.
"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," Henderson said during a break from strength and conditioning drills in the field house at Winter Park.
When Jasper Brinkley signed with Arizona, the Vikings had no obvious replacement. There were veterans available in free agency, including Brian Urlacher after Chicago decided not to re-sign him. Then there were plenty of rookie options, most notably Manti Te'o of Notre Dame who fell down the draft board into the second round.
Even after choosing a defensive tackle and a cornerback with the 23rd and 25th overall selections, the Vikings had another chance in the first round when they packaged four mid-to-late-round picks to move up to No. 29. But that was for wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson, not Te'o. They took Penn State's Michael Mauti in the seventh round, but he's coming off multiple reconstructive knee surgeries.
So despite a relatively productive foray in free agency and the draft, the Vikings still had this big hole to fill. But Henderson, whose older brother, E.J., was Minnesota's primary middle linebacker for most of his career here from 2003 through 2011, said he's been looking forward to the move since last season ended. Fourth-round draft pick Gerald Hodges, also from Penn State, has the inside track to start at the weak side spot.
"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," Henderson said. "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."
He's agile enough to be effective at the position. One of his problems over the last two seasons as a starter at the weak side spot was over-pursuing the ball and winding up in a bad place. That tendency likely won't be as pronounced or detrimental in the middle. Henderson also has played plenty in the nickel packages, so he has experience in pass coverage.
Now he has to prove he can be a valuable three-down player.
"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," Henderson said. "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."
Chad Greenway, the team's best linebacker, at the strong side spot, said he's excited about the prospect of having Henderson in the middle.
"The instincts are there. His ability is there. I think he's got to do it full time. ... So if that's how it shakes out, I think it'll be really great for him," Greenway said. "He's got the range. He's got the length."
The other major question on defense left to answer for the Vikings is how they'll replace the leadership, toughness and tackling ability of veteran cornerback Antoine Winfield, who signed with Seattle.
"Oh, that was a hard one. I'll tell you that much. A fan favorite, a player favorite, a team favorite," Greenway said.
Added safety Harrison Smith: "We all had a ton of respect for him and looked to him for advice. Now, it's really an opportunity for the rest of us to kind of fill that void."
NOTES: QB Christian Ponder said the bruised triceps on his throwing arm that kept him out of the playoff game at Green Bay has healed fully. But he had a scare about two weeks after the season when the contusion came back, his arm swelled up and the muscle hardened. Ponder said he thought it was a blood clot and went to the emergency room to be safe. "About two weeks after that, all the effects went away. Since then, I've been working out probably two months and it's been fine," Ponder said. ... WR Greg Childs, who missed his rookie season with a torn patellar tendon in both knees, has been working out and doing drills at full speed. "All the necessary things I needed to be doing, I'm doing them now," Childs said, declining to put a date on his return to the field with the team.
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