Minnesota Vikings: Erin Henderson

MINNEAPOLIS -- Between now and the Minnesota Vikings' first training camp practice July 25, we will break down each position group. We'll look at the linebackers this morning.

Returning players: Chad Greenway, Michael Mauti, Gerald Hodges, Audie Cole, Larry Dean

Gone from last season: Erin Henderson, Desmond Bishop, Marvin Mitchell

New this season: Anthony Barr (first-round pick from UCLA), Brandon Watts (seventh-round pick from Georgia Tech), Jasper Brinkley (free agent from Arizona), Dom DeCicco (free agent from Tampa Bay), Mike Zimmer (free agent from Jacksonville)

Position coach: Adam Zimmer (first season)

Biggest issue: As the Vikings begin camp, they've almost got a blank slate at the position. Greenway figures to start, but will it be at middle linebacker or weak-side linebacker? Will Brinkley return to start in the middle? Will Cole be able to lock down a starting spot after playing well at the end of last season? And will Barr be ready for a featured role in the Vikings' defense after the team used the No. 9 pick in the draft on him? There's some young talent at the position, but the Vikings don't have much settled at linebacker, and they'll have to run through a number of permutations to figure out what will work. Hodges -- who struggled as a rookie and didn't seem to play with the edge the Vikings wanted to see -- could also get a chance to turn things around and showcase his quickness in Mike Zimmer's defense.

Player to watch: Barr is the obvious choice -- the Vikings seem to have big plans for him as a pass-rusher that can occasionally set up on the defensive line. He'll have to prove he can handle coverage responsibilities, especially in light of the fact the Vikings toyed with him in their nickel package during minicamp, and he'll have to adjust to offensive linemen that know how to counter his pass-rushing moves. But the Vikings were thrilled to get him, and if he's able to handle the learning curve as a rookie, he's got the potential to unlock a series of different looks for the Vikings defense.

Medical report: Greenway played with a broken wrist last season, but is healthy this season, and Mauti, who had three ACL operations in college, is now 20 months removed from his last surgery.

Help wanted: The Vikings seemed confident enough in their young linebackers not to pursue much help (outside of Brinkley) in free agency, and barring injury, they're likely to head into the season with the group they've got at the position.

Quotable: "When you go into a game with six linebackers, if something happens, they’ve got to be ready to go, so part of the deal with guys is we’re trying to give them a lot of different things to do," Mike Zimmer said. "I’ve always felt like the more you can do, the more valuable you are on game day."
MINNEAPOLIS -- Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Michael Mauti's offseason is just how unremarkable it's been.

The Minnesota Vikings linebacker is back in the Twin Cities now, getting settled in an apartment before the Vikings' offseason workout program starts Monday and returning from his hometown of Mandeville, La. He's spent the last four months relaxing at home, working out in the same place he's trained since high school and spending his weekends fishing for bass in the swamps around Lake Ponchartrain. In fact, the most upsetting thing about his winter might have been the unusually chilly temperatures that scared off the fish.

"I was fishing," he said. "I wouldn't say I was catching anything."

Mauti also wasn't meeting with a rehab specialist, or seeing a doctor, or following a training program to put strength and range of motion back into one of his knees. He's a year removed from his third torn ACL, and for the first time since the spring of 2011 he's preparing for a new season without worrying about a knee injury.

"Based on the way [the winter] went, and how my body feels right now, it's tenfold better than where I was at this point last year," the second-year linebacker said. "It's nice to build a foundation where I can work in the positive instead of starting from negative and working back to zero, you know?"

Now that he's healthy, Mauti has his sights on a starting linebacker spot that might have been his if he hadn't banged his surgically repaired left knee on the CenturyLink Field turf last November. He had played a handful of snaps in the Vikings' base defense during a blowout loss to the Seattle Seahawks, finishing the game after getting injured in the first half and seeing time at middle linebacker while Audie Cole played on the strong side. At that point, Mauti was second on the depth chart at middle linebacker. But when starter Erin Henderson missed the Vikings' next game against the Green Bay Packers after an arrest and a subsequent personal issue, the Vikings opted to start Cole in the middle, limiting Mauti to special teams duty while remaining cautious with his knee.

"I remember being a little disappointed, I had no control over what was going to happen, one of those things, bad timing, at the same time, I was lucky enough that it wasn't serious," Mauti said. "Audie played great while he was in there. It was tough timing."

[+] EnlargeMichael Mauti
Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsAfter a rehab-free offseason, Michael Mauti has his sights set on a starting linebacker spot.
Cole played well enough at middle linebacker at the end of last season that he might have an edge on Mauti for the starting job there this season, and Jasper Brinkley also could contend for the spot. But the arrival of a new coaching staff essentially gives all the Vikings' players a clean slate. Both Mauti and Cole are helped by the fact they can play multiple positions; Mauti had started his career at Penn State as an outside linebacker before moving inside, and Cole has played both spots, as well. General manager Rick Spielman said last month that Zimmer plans to do "different things" with strong side linebacker Chad Greenway, so versatility could be a key attribute for all of the Vikings' linebackers.

But Mauti, who might have been a second- or third-round pick instead of a seventh-rounder if he'd been healthy, said his goal is to start.

"I have higher expectations for myself than just a [special] teams player," Mauti said. "If that's my role, I'll do that to the best of my ability. But everybody wants to play defense. I'm in a great spot, there's going to be great competition for it, and we've got a couple of great guys to work with."

Mauti will be in Minnesota for the duration of the Vikings' offseason program, making a trip back to Penn State to call the Lions' spring game for the Big Ten Network for the second year. "It's something I enjoy doing, and it might be something I want to pursue someday," he said.

He doesn't plan to have a second career path, though, for quite a long time.

"This was a big offseason for me physically, just to really kind of recover," he said. "It's been a long year, but now I'm starting normally for the first time in a couple years."
INDIANAPOLIS -- The Minnesota Vikings' decision to cut linebacker Erin Henderson earlier this month was made by both coach Mike Zimmer and general manager Rick Spielman, Zimmer said on Friday at the NFL scouting combine. Zimmer "didn't know him as well, football-wise, as I probably would've if I had been able to coach him," he said, but he and Spielman agreed on the move.

"I think all these decisions were made together," Zimmer said. He added he did not talk to Henderson before the Vikings released him.

Henderson, who was released on Feb. 7, was arrested in both November and January for drunken driving. It seemed likely the Vikings would part ways with him, especially after Audie Cole emerged as a middle linebacker possibility late in the season. The Vikings could also take a look at second-year linebacker Michael Mauti, who is now a year removed from ACL surgery and seemed like a strong candidate to play the middle if he could stay healthy. And linebacker figures to be a position of interest for the Vikings at the draft; the team will watch linebackers work out on Monday.

Countdown to combine: Vikings LBs

February, 18, 2014
Feb 18
MINNEAPOLIS -- We're back at it with our Countdown to combine series, looking at four positions where the Vikings need help heading into the 2014 draft. It all leads up to our coverage of the NFL scouting combine from Indianapolis.

Position of need: Linebacker

In many ways, this has been a position that's needed upgrading for years. Chad Greenway made the Pro Bowl in 2011 and 2012, but the Vikings' production at middle linebacker has suffered since E.J. Henderson retired, and it became obvious last year they needed a dynamic, playmaking linebacker, as well as a permanent solution in the middle of their defense. It's possible both of those needs could be met in the same player.

Three players the Vikings might be targeting:

Khalil Mack, Buffalo: The 6-foot-3 linebacker has been linked to the Vikings in a number of mock drafts and with good reason; he'd be the kind of athletic linebacker who'd make offenses take notice. As dependable as Greenway has been, the Vikings haven't had a true thumper in their linebacking group for some time. Mack would likely start at weakside linebacker, assuming the Vikings liked what they saw of Audie Cole enough to give him another try in the middle. If Mack played there, he might also give the Vikings some of what they thought they'd get with Desmond Bishop in that spot last year -- a physical linebacker who can rush the passer.

C.J. Mosley, Alabama: If the Vikings were looking for a middle linebacker, Mosley might be their best option. He's particularly strong in pass coverage -- where Erin Henderson flailed at times last year -- and he's got the size to help in the run game, as well. Mosley sustained a nasty knee injury in the 2012 BCS National Championship, and dislocated his elbow last year, but if he shows himself healthy enough to merit first-round consideration, he could get a strong look from the Vikings at No. 8. General manager Rick Spielman has also talked about the possibility of trading back for more picks, and if the Vikings did that, they might still be able to get Mosley at, say, No. 10 or 12.

Anthony Barr, UCLA: He could be gone by the time the Vikings pick at No. 8, particularly if there's a team that sees him being able to bulk up enough to play defensive end in a 4-3 scheme, but he'd be another strong option at outside linebacker. Barr is 6-4 and nearly 250 pounds, so he'd certainly have the size to be an imposing outside linebacker. His best fit could be with a team looking for a 3-4 outside linebacker, but Barr's pass-rushing skills could make him an attractive fit in the Vikings' scheme, as well.
Each week, I will field questions via Twitter with the hashtag #VikingsMail, then will deliver the answers over the weekend.
MINNEAPOLIS -- On Friday afternoon, with a couple lines of agate type in a news release, the Minnesota Vikings announced they'd parted ways with linebacker Erin Henderson, ending a six-year relationship with the linebacker and marking the first time since 2003 they didn't have either Erin or his brother E.J. on their roster.

[+] EnlargeErin Henderson
Bruce Kluckhohn/USA TODAY SportsOn Friday, Minnesota released linebacker Erin Henderson, who played 64 total games over his six-year career for the Vikings.
It was a move that had seemed inevitable since New Year's Day, when Henderson got in a one-car accident in the Minneapolis suburb of Chanhassen and was arrested for the second time in six weeks on suspicion of drunken driving and possession of a small amount of marijuana. But it probably wasn't as clean and seamless as the transaction wire would indicate.

Since last April, when coaches first told Erin Henderson he should prepare to play middle linebacker in the event the Vikings didn't find a more proven option, the younger Henderson seemed to take extra pride in the idea of moving from weak-side linebacker, becoming the quarterback of the Vikings' defense and taking over the spot where his brother had become a Pro Bowler. He announced the move to reporters last May, fired back at doubters later that month and curtly replied, "I'm playing the 'Mike,'" when asked about the possibility of the Vikings signing former Green Bay Packers linebacker Desmond Bishop last June.

The pressure of holding onto something he wanted so badly seemed to get to Henderson; he admitted after his first arrest in November that he'd been struggling with the "the stress and pressure of playing in the NFL -- coming in here and fighting for your job day and day out and what goes with that." And on Dec. 30, as he cleaned out his locker and thanked former coach Leslie Frazier for his guidance, Henderson sounded like he'd done some more soul-searching toward the end of the season.

"I think I grew leaps and bounds as a player and as a person as well," he said that day. "You start to learn a lot about yourself when things can go wrong or bad, if you’re willing to try to learn, if you’re willing to look in the mirror and figure things out and I think I was able to do that. Not just as a player, but as a person as well. Started watching the film honestly, looking at tape and seeing stuff I can improve on and what I can do better. As opposed to, 'I’m here, I’m already the greatest ever.' That allowed me to progress and get better as the season went on."

This is not to say that Henderson -- or any NFL player -- is unique in his struggle to process the stress of keeping a job in a competitive industry, or that he's not responsible for his two arrests. He put his employment on the line by getting himself in trouble, and he'll have to deal with the consequences, legal and otherwise.

But Henderson's situation -- and his introspection in a couple of interviews about it -- does provide a glimpse into the darker side of the NFL, a game where young men are handed exorbitant sums of money at a tender age, put their bodies on the line to keep the cash coming in and are expected to navigate the churning waters at the confluence of wealth and physical toil.

As it is for many young American men, alcohol is often an accomplice when things go wrong; just over a quarter of the players polled in ESPN's NFL Nation Confidential survey this season said alcohol is a problem in the NFL. There's a reason teams invest so much time into educating rookies about the temptations of being a professional athlete -- as a safeguard against personal missteps that can range from the unfortunate to the tragic -- and a year after getting a two-year contract from the Vikings, Henderson is looking for a job not because of what happened on the field in 2013, but because of what happened off of it.

Did he make mistakes? Yes. Are the Vikings within their rights to cut ties with him for those mistakes? Yes. But Henderson seemed like he was battling some deep-seeded issues this season, and his release is a reminder that for players in the NFL, there is often shaky and treacherous ground to walk on the way from inexperience to success.
MINNEAPOLIS -- We're continuing on with our position-by-position outlook of the Minnesota Vikings' roster. Today: the linebackers.


2014 free agents: Desmond Bishop, Marvin Mitchell, Larry Dean (restricted).

The good: The Vikings might have found something at the end of the year at middle linebacker. Second-year man Audie Cole stepped in for Erin Henderson in late November and played well at the position until a high ankle sprain kept him out of the last game of the season. The Vikings hadn't planned to build around Henderson at middle linebacker, as former coach Leslie Frazier acknowledged during the season, and Cole mostly held up well as a blitzer and in pass coverage.

The bad: There wasn't much else to like at the position in 2013. Henderson had his moments, particularly when he was used to blitz, but often looked like he was guessing in pass coverage. He was also arrested on his second DWI charge in as many months in early January. His future with the team would appear to be tenuous at best. Chad Greenway played with a broken wrist for much of the season that impaired his ability to tackle and also seemed a step late in pass coverage too often. He might have been caught trying to compensate for the instability at the linebacker positions around him. Desmond Bishop had taken the weak-side linebacker position from Marvin Mitchell when he sustained his second season-ending injury in as many years, Mitchell made few impact plays, rookie Michael Mauti excelled mostly on special teams and fellow rookie Gerald Hodges struggled to gain the favor of the coaching staff.

The money (2014 salary-cap numbers): Greenway ($8.2 million), Henderson ($2.25 million), Hodges ($600,027), Cole ($570,000), Mauti ($480,000). Given the fact he turned 31 earlier this month and he is coming off a subpar season, Greenway could be a candidate to restructure his deal if the Vikings wind up in a cap crunch, though there's a good chance they'll have enough flexibility to avoid that. Cutting Henderson would only cost the Vikings $500,000, and in light of the fact he might have an NFL suspension coming, it seems possible the Vikings would part ways with him. The rest of the group is on rookie deals, and the Vikings can decide whether to let go of Mitchell and Dean.

Draft priority: High. The Vikings need an impact player at the position, no matter whether they think they have a solution at middle linebacker in Cole. Buffalo's Khalil Mack has been linked to the Vikings in a handful of early mock drafts, and he could make sense at No. 8. But with Greenway possibly entering the twilight of his Pro Bowl career, and new coach Mike Zimmer instilling a new defensive scheme, it's important for the Vikings to get some things settled at linebacker.

Players thank Frazier for his impact

December, 30, 2013
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- The Minnesota Vikings have now been through three coaches in the eight years the Wilf family has owned the team. They fired the first, Mike Tice, minutes after the 2005 season ended. They got rid of the second, Brad Childress, in the middle of the 2010 season, after he usurped their authority in cutting Randy Moss and his players soured on him.

So simply because of logistics, it's a safe bet there hasn't been a scene in recent memory like what happened Monday morning at Winter Park, when Frazier said goodbye to his players -- some of whom admitted they were holding back tears -- told them to call him if they ever needed anything and left the room to a round of applause. But the uniqueness of the moment goes beyond that.

It's not normal for a group of professional athletes, who operate removed from the front office and insulate themselves emotionally with reminders about how the game is a business, to emerge from a meeting like that and admit to reporters what their emotions were. It's even less normal to hear so many talk about what Frazier -- first as the Vikings defensive coordinator, and then as their head coach -- meant to them as men. But that's Frazier. And the things for which his players praised him are the things he does best.

Some coaches make their money as tacticians. Others make it as taskmasters and disciplinarians. Frazier's thing was servant leadership: his ability to get players to follow him, and play for each other, because of how he treated them.

Consider the stories players told Monday: Erin Henderson, who was arrested last month for drunken driving and who has talked about dealing with emotional issues this season, talked about how Frazier encouraged him over the past six years in Minnesota, and said he plans to keep in touch with Frazier. Chris Cook, who was arrested in 2011, said Frazier "definitely helped me as far as being a calm person and channeling some of my aggression that I had when I first came in." And Jared Allen, who came to Minnesota after struggling with alcohol in Kansas City, said he believed Frazier's presence in his life wasn't a coincidence.

"When you come in [at] 25 years old and land a huge contract, heck, we’ve seen it in the league go the wrong way a lot of times," Allen said. "[It was] just helping me from the standpoint of having somebody to talk to as far as, when I first started dating my wife, just life, and going to someone for advice. I think people think all the time that just because you’re a professional or you’re in the NFL that we have it all figured out. Heck, I know people in their 50s and 60s who don’t have it figured out. We’re always growing and looking for people to guide us along that way. Coach Frazier is one of those guys that God put in my life at a certain time to help me develop as a man."

There were valid criticisms of Frazier as a head coach -- he might have been too deferential to his coaching staff this season, and too beholden to a style of football that doesn't work in today's NFL. Those things might have been grounds to get him fired.

Those are separate issues from what will probably be Frazier's legacy in the NFL: the number of players who credited his influence and leadership in their lives. That's a powerful thing to say about a person in any walk of life, and it's even more so in a profession that seems to often reward aggression over humility. It's accurate to say Frazier was popular among his players, but it's probably also too shallow of a characterization.

It's more accurate to say they had a deep appreciation for Frazier's character. That, more than anything else, created a uniquely somber mood at Winter Park on Monday.

"When you talk to him, you respect him as a man and you respect what he believes in," safety Jamarca Sanford said. "He’s a Godly man. He believes in God. He’s a great guy. At the end of the day, he didn’t succeed like he wanted to as a head coach, but at the end of the day we respect him for each and every play. One player on this team can’t have one bad thing to say about him as a man. As a coach, the way he did things you might have something to say, I don’t. But as a player you might not agree, but at the end of the day you respect as a man.”

Mauti could see time at MLB on Sunday

December, 26, 2013
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- The Vikings' final regular-season game could double as an opportunity for them to assess their future at middle linebacker.

Coach Leslie Frazier said that while Erin Henderson will start in the middle with Audie Cole out because of a high ankle sprain, the Vikings could take a look at rookie Michael Mauti, who might have unseated Henderson at the spot earlier this season if he'd been healthy when Cole got his opportunity.

Henderson was arrested for drunken driving and possession of a controlled substance on Nov. 19, and sat out the Vikings' next game against the Green Bay Packers because of a personal issue that he later said was not related to the arrest. Mauti, who'd had his left knee surgically repaired twice, banged it on the turf in Seattle on Nov. 17, and wasn't healthy enough to start against the Packers. That created an opportunity for Cole, who played well against Green Bay and started the Vikings' next four games at middle linebacker until he got hurt Sunday.

Frazier reminded reporters last month that Henderson wasn't the Vikings' top plan this offseason at middle linebacker, though he wound up starting over Mauti and Cole almost by default when the Vikings didn't bring in a proven middle linebacker. In a perfect world, the Vikings would likely put Henderson back at outside linebacker, like they'd been doing before Cole got hurt, and Mauti -- who likely would've gone higher than the seventh round in the draft if not for concerns about his knee -- might give them another truer middle linebacking option than Henderson.

"(We) Might get Michael in there some and take a look at him. See how Erin is doing, but get Michael some as well," Frazier said. "He's done some good things. This offseason is going to be big for (Mauti)."

It will depend on what kind of scheme the Vikings are running if they end up with a new coaching staff, but Mauti might have a chance to compete for the job. He's impressed the Vikings on special teams, and seems to have both the downhill speed and the temperament to play middle linebacker. He spent much of his first summer with the Vikings rehabbing from his most recent knee surgery, so the chance to go through a full offseason program could be a key opportunity for him.

Depending on how Sunday's game goes, Mauti could start to make his case for the middle linebacker spot early.

Vikings will wait and see on Peterson

December, 23, 2013
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- Minnesota Vikings coach Leslie Frazier pulled Adrian Peterson from Sunday's 42-14 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals in part because the Vikings' big deficit wasn't worth risking further injury to Peterson's sprained foot. But the Vikings might have to see some improvement in Peterson's condition before they'll put him on the field for Sunday's season finale against the Detroit Lions.

Frazier said the Vikings will make a determination about Peterson's status when they get back on the practice field this week -- the team will practice on Tuesday, while shifting its normal off-day to Wednesday because of the Christmas holiday. It seems unlikely Peterson would do much in practice on Tuesday, but as the week goes on, the Vikings will be monitoring him closely.

He carried seven times for 31 yards in the first quarter on Sunday, but had just four carries after that and was taken out of the game in the third quarter.

"I think there were some moments in that game where he did some good things and some other moments where we just weren’t sure he’d have the burst we normally see, so we all want to see if he’s better this week with some more time," Frazier said. He later added, "We always want to do the right thing by him when it comes to playing the game of football. He means so much to our franchise and organization so we have to be wise when talking about how to use him."

Frazier confirmed that backup running back Toby Gerhart again strained his right hamstring on Sunday, two weeks after his initial injury in Baltimore. He also said middle linebacker Audie Cole will miss the Vikings' final game after suffering a high ankle sprain, which likely means Erin Henderson will start at middle linebacker unless the Vikings decide to take a look at rookie Michael Mauti.

The coach is hoping cornerback Xavier Rhodes, who has missed the Vikings' past two games with a sprained ankle, will also get back on the field for the season finale. "We definitely need him, so we’ll see if he can practice tomorrow or after Christmas."
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- Minnesota Vikings linebacker Erin Henderson is doing much better on a personal level, he says, after a Nov. 19 arrest for drunken driving and a subsequent personal issue that kept him from making the Vikings' next road trip to Green Bay. He said last month that the Vikings had given him the "tools and resources" to get things in order, and seemed optimistic about where he's at on Wednesday.

"This is my job, this is my responsibility to myself and my teammates," Henderson said. "This is something we agreed to do. It’s helped me. Just waking up every morning, it could be easy to look at our record, look at the weather outside and get down and feel bad and feel sad for yourself. But I’m able to work past that and get over that and look at the bright side."

Asked if he'd been dealing with depression, Henderson said, "It’s kind of hard to say. Depression is a weird word. They use it in different ways and throw it around in different ways. I think it was more so just the pressure of it all kind of coming to a head."

Henderson made little secret of his desire to play the middle linebacker position when the Vikings first talked about moving him there after the draft, and he showed agitation in several offseason interviews when he was asked about the possibility of the Vikings bringing in someone else to play the position. Wednesday was the second time in the past month he's talked about how he'd let the pressure of keeping a job in the NFL get to him, and while he's got a better perspective on things now, he says, he also wants to get back to playing in the middle.

The Vikings moved Henderson back to weakside linebacker after Audie Cole performed well at middle linebacker, and because the Vikings play so much nickel defense, Henderson has barely been on the field. He played eight snaps against the Baltimore Ravens on Dec. 8, and got just 12 last Sunday against the Eagles, including a couple at middle linebacker after Cole got shaken up by a block.

"It was almost kind of boring, honestly," Henderson said. "You go from being in the middle of everything and being in the mix all the time and being on the field all the downs to going back to playing the Will, which is not a glorious position at all by any stretch of the imagination. You’re coming off the field a lot of times with the nickel situations. It’s kind of been hard for me, a little tough."

Coach Leslie Frazier said earlier this month that the Vikings moved Henderson to the middle because of "the plight we were in," not necessarily because they envisioned Henderson as a middle linebacker, so it's tough to see Henderson changing the team's plans there. But Cole has only played four games there, and stranger things have certainly happened.

"I think I’m more than capable of getting the job done," Henderson said. "We’ll see what happens with everything and how it plays out."

Upon Further Review: Vikings Week 14

December, 9, 2013
BALTIMORE -- A review of four hot issues following the Minnesota Vikings' 29-26 loss to the Baltimore Ravens:

Peterson's health: For the Vikings, this is probably the issue: Running back Adrian Peterson will have a MRI on his sprained foot on Monday, and while he was optimistic about his prognosis on Sunday -- he said X-rays were negative, and added he would push to play Sunday against the Philadelphia Eagles -- Monday's tests might have the final say about whether Peterson plays again this season. He said the pain was in the middle of his foot, which would be in the region of the dreaded Lisfranc injury, and turf toe could also still be in play. We'll find out more after his exam on Monday.

Toby time? In Peterson's absence, running back Toby Gerhart continued to show what a capable replacement he can be, romping 41 yards for one of the Vikings' would-be game-winning touchdowns in the fourth quarter and posting 89 yards on 15 carries. It is the third time in four weeks that Gerhart has posted at least 60 yards, and it was the first time this season he has carried the ball more than 10 times in a game. He is averaging 6.2 yards per carry this season, and could be making a case for more of a shared workload in the final games of the season (though it will be hard to convince Peterson to carry the ball less, if he's healthy). Gerhart will be a free agent after the season, and it's looking increasingly likely that he's going to make himself some money.

Henderson marginalized: The Vikings moved Erin Henderson to outside linebacker this week, putting him back on the field after he'd missed the last two games in the wake of his Nov. 19 drunken-driving arrest and a subsequent personal issue that kept him away from the team for several days. But with Audie Cole starting at middle linebacker, and once again playing every snap, Henderson saw how little the Vikings use their third linebacker in their current defense. He played just six snaps in the loss, one more than Marvin Mitchell saw on defense. When Henderson was the Vikings' weakside linebacker last year, he still played in the middle in the nickel package, keeping his snap counts high. But without the nickel snaps, Henderson didn't get a chance to do much. Cole was in coverage on Marlon Brown's two big catches on the Ravens' last drive -- including his game-winning touchdown -- but the linebacker nearly tipped Joe Flacco's pass away before Brown could catch it in the back of the end zone, and coach Leslie Frazier credited Flacco for a good throw more than he pointed to a coverage breakdown.

Fines coming? Peterson was critical of both referees and Ravens fans after the game, pointing out a number of calls he disagreed with and calling the Ravens' fans the "worst in the NFL" after they were throwing snowballs on the field in the fourth quarter, and it stands to reason he might hear from the league this week. Fullback Jerome Felton was also critical of the referees, saying there were four questionable calls that all went against the Vikings, but other players were more diplomatic, particularly when discussing two dubious pass interference calls in the fourth quarter. "I'm not going to say anything to get on Roger Goodell's list," defensive end Brian Robison deadpanned.

W2W4: Vikings-Ravens

December, 6, 2013
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- As we close out the week and get you ready for the Minnesota Vikings-Baltimore Ravens game on Sunday, I've got a few items left in the notebook to pass along. This post will serve as a place to discuss a handful of odds and ends. Here we go:

Cole looking set at MLB: If the fact the Vikings moved Erin Henderson back to weak-side linebacker didn't clear it up, the fact the Vikings plan to make Audie Cole, and not Henderson, their middle linebacker in the nickel package should suggest the plan to make Cole the middle linebacker isn't a passing fancy. Coach Leslie Frazier said Henderson took to his old outside linebacker spot "like riding a bike," and as well as Cole has played in pass coverage the past two weeks, there's probably no reason to switch anything up there. Henderson admitted the move hurt his pride, but he seems to be accepting it for now. Given what Frazier said this week about Henderson not being the Vikings' preferred plan at middle linebacker, it's safe to assume he could stay outside if Cole keeps showing he can handle the middle.

Special teams could be pivotal: The Ravens and Vikings both have dynamic return men who could affect Sunday's game; Baltimore kick returner Jacoby Jones has a 26.5-yard return average this season, and punt returner Tandon Doss is averaging 15.6 yards per return, with an 82-yard touchdown to his credit. The Vikings, of course, have three TDs between kick returner Cordarrelle Patterson (two) and punt returner Marcus Sherels (one). "Their kickoff return guy, Jones, he's impressive," Frazier said. "Of course, our guy is special as well. Whether it be a turnover or kick return or punt return, it could turn this game for sure."

Preparing for Pitta: Ravens tight end Dennis Pitta is hopeful he'll make his season debut on Sunday after dislocating his hip in July, and if he does, the Vikings will have another element of the Ravens' offense to think about. They've been burned by several tight ends this year, giving up at least 60 yards to an opposing tight end in six games, but Cole's presence could help there. If Pitta plays -- which coach John Harbaugh wouldn't divulge on Friday -- the Vikings will be in for a test. "He’s a pretty tough matchup for linebackers and sometimes even safeties," Frazier said. "He’s almost a wide receiver in a lot of ways and it seems like he’s one of those guys that their quarterback looks for often. So he presents some challenges for your defense for sure."

Wet weather possible: Aside from rain in Week 2 in Chicago, the Vikings haven't had to deal with much inclement weather the past few seasons. That could change on Sunday, with the game-time forecast calling for a mix of rain and snow. And as we mentioned earlier this week, the Vikings are just 1-6-1 since 2006 when game-time temperatures are 40 or below, according to ESPN Stats & Information. "The guys will figure it out. We'll go play, regardless of the elements," Frazier said. "Depending on how bad the conditions are, it'll determine how much you're throwing the ball and how much you're running the ball. We'll see when we get out there in pregame."

Cassel vs. Ravens: Even though he'd spent his entire career in the AFC before this season, Matt Cassel had only started one game against the Ravens -- and he probably doesn't have many good memories about it. He completed nine of his 15 passes for 92 yards and two interceptions last year, being knocked out with a head injury and missing the Kansas City Chiefs' next game after they lost 9-6 to the Ravens at Arrowhead Stadium. The Ravens' defense looks quite a bit different than the one Cassel faced last year, but he'll look to solve Baltimore's scheme on Sunday.
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."

[+] EnlargeErin Henderson
Bruce Kluckhohn/USA TODAY SportsErin Henderson will try to give the Vikings a reason to cheer from his new outside linebacker position.
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.
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The Vikings signed tight end John Carlson in March 2012 to enhance their passing game as part of a two-tight end package with Kyle Rudolph, but a knee injury in training camp put Carlson's first season with his home-state team on a bad path before it even got started. Carlson wound up catching just eight passes last year as a forgotten man in the Vikings' offense, and had to take a pay cut this spring just to stay with the team.

With Rudolph out because of a fractured foot, though, Carlson has blossomed in the Vikings' offense -- to the point where he's on track for his best season since 2009 with the Seahawks. And as he told Tim Yotter of Viking Update, he's grateful to have another chance.

"It’s been fun to feel like I’m contributing on the offensive side of the ball, or really in any way. Last year didn’t go, obviously, the way I wanted it go,” Carlson said. “On a football team, or I guess on any team, everyone wants to feel like they’re contributing, doing their part and helping the team win. Football is the ultimate team sport.”

Rudolph is due to come back in a week or two, and Carlson's role in the Vikings' offense will undoubtedly be affected by that. But after missing all of 2011 with a shoulder injury and being limited last year, Carlson has shown he's still got something left at age 29. It wouldn't cost the Vikings much to let him go after this season, but in Rudolph's absence, Carlson has made the case he's worth keeping around.

Here are today's other Vikings stories of note: