EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- The most interesting thing Minnesota Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said on Wednesday afternoon, when talking about his coaching staff's decision to move Erin Henderson back to outside linebacker and keep Audie Cole in the middle for Sunday's game against the Baltimore Ravens, I thought, was this:
"He was moved to the 'Mike' linebacker position not necessarily because that's what we wanted to do, but that was the plight that we were in," Frazier said. "He didn't come in a year ago as our middle linebacker. There were some things that happened over the offseason that resulted in him being our middle linebacker. He's a very good outside backer and expect him to play well on Sunday."
You'll recall the Vikings had big plans in the offseason to solve their future at the position; Frazier talked at the draft about how they wanted "to potentially draft someone" to handle the spot, and though he left the door open for Henderson to play there. Both Frazier and linebackers coach Mike Singletary indicated in April the Vikings planned to find a young middle linebacker.
The option of taking one high in the draft more or less disappeared when the Vikings traded four picks to the New England Patriots to move back into the first round to take receiver Cordarrelle Patterson. The week after the draft, Henderson said at an offseason workout that coaches had told him to prepare to play middle linebacker, and he essentially slid into the spot almost by default during the offseason, even though Frazier wouldn't commit to Henderson being there The closest he came was at mini-camp, when he indicated either Cole or Michael Mauti would have to do something to take the spot away from Henderson. But with the Vikings envisioning Desmond Bishop as an outside linebacker and concerns persisting about their two young options in the middle, Henderson got the job -- and the chance he coveted to follow in his brother E.J.'s footsteps.
Henderson had played respectably in the middle, but still seemed to struggle in pass coverage at times. Moreover, his departure from the weakside linebacker spot left a hole the Vikings had never really filled; Bishop tore his ACL in October, and Marvin Mitchell did little to distinguish himself after getting the starting spot back following Bishop's injury.
Now in Cole, they have a young player who intrigues them enough to put Henderson back outside. It will be interesting to see how the move plays out in the long run -- Henderson admitted he struggled last season when he would get too aggressive and abandon his gap responsibilities on the weak side, and while Cole has played well, he's also benefited from being a lightly-scouted player. Moreover, Henderson seemed to bristle at the idea of not playing middle linebacker in the offseason, enough that it beared asking Frazier how Henderson took the news on Wednesday.
"We talked about some things and explained to him why. And he accepted that. He's a pro," Frazier said. "He's going to be on the field. That gives him an opportunity to make some plays for us. He's played the position in the past. He handled it as well as can be expected."
Henderson ran the risk of this happening when he was arrested on suspicion of drunken driving last month, and at least for now, Cole has seized the spot. Henderson talked on Wednesday about being in a better frame of mind after the arrest -- and a personal issue that kept him away from the team for three days after it -- and added he sent Cole a congratulatory text when coaches gave him the news. He seemed acutely aware of outside criticism, particularly with what came across his Twitter account, and he's tried to put himself in a better frame of mind to handle it.
"I have a lot of things to be happy about and thankful for, aside from all the naysayers and haters everybody else who's had different things to say about me throughout the year," he said. "Sometimes I let it get to me and get down too much. I've come to grips with it and come to terms with it and I'm able to look at myself and know the man that I am and accept it."
Whether that leads to him regaining the middle linebacker spot remains to be seen. But Wednesday was a reminder that Henderson's grip on the job was only going to be so firm when the Vikings began the year with other things in mind for him.