EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- During a team drill Wednesday afternoon, Minnesota Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph took off down the seam. He was picked up by new middle linebacker Erin Henderson, who was sprinting to keep up as quarterback Christian Ponder lofted a pass over his head and into Rudolph's hands for a big gain.
The assignment is one of the most difficult tasks for today's middle linebacker, especially those who play in versions of the Tampa 2 scheme. On this particular occasion, it required perfect execution -- enough height on the ball from Ponder, elite concentration from Rudolph and of course a nonexistent pass rush -- to complete.
So was this play a sign that the Vikings can make ends meet with Henderson shifting from the Will linebacker to the Mike? Or is it a warning sign when you consider that every NFC North team has a talented downfield pass-catching tight end (or two) like Rudolph? That's a central question the Vikings will answer over the next three months after failing to acquire a middle linebacker with more experience via free agency and the draft.
"He'll have to catch up on the pass-coverage part because it wasn't as common of a thing for him to do before. But he'll be fine," teammate Chad Greenway said of Henderson. "I'm telling you: He'll be great."
Coach Leslie Frazier again stopped short Wednesday of anointing Henderson his middle linebacker for this season, noting the "learning curve" that he is up against. But the structure of Frazier's proposed competition suggests this is a tryout of one.
The other two candidates Frazier named are seventh-round draft choices: Audie Cole in 2012 and Michael Mauti this year. Cole did not get any work with the first team Wednesday and Mauti is still recovering from a torn ACL that cut short his college career.
Regardless, it appears Henderson is a bit sensitive to the idea that he might experience some rough patches -- or outright failure -- in the transition. He played middle linebacker in the Vikings' nickel package during portions of the 2012 season, and last year the team played nearly 60 percent of its snaps in that scheme. And like most teams, the Vikings cross-train their linebackers during offseason workouts and training camp to prepare for emergencies, if nothing else.
As a result, Henderson said Wednesday: "It's still football and still the same game." He added: "The majority of the game is played from nickel, so I've seen it from that perspective."
According to Henderson, in fact, he has come to view himself at a new position only by reading media coverage.
"You guys have forced me to look at it as a position shift," he said. "It's definitely not exactly what you've done before. I can understand why it would be a big deal and why it would be looked at like a different position. But I've been asked to learn this position since I've been here and it really isn't that different for me."
That statement could represent the sentiments of a player who wants to avoid the nerves associated with taking over as what his coach called "the quarterback of our defense" on Wednesday. Or, more likely in Henderson's case, it is the frustration of a player who has felt unfairly slighted in analysis of his performance.
The truth is that part-time outside linebackers don't often get noticed, one way or the other, by fans and media members. Their chances for big plays are dramatically reduced when they leave the field on passing downs, as Henderson did during his first year as a starter in 2011 and part of last season.
In the snaps he did play, however, Henderson has largely been viewed in a favorable light by those who watch closely. Our friends at Pro Football Focus rated Henderson higher than Greenway in each of the past two seasons. But Greenway has also played about 1,000 more snaps than Henderson over that time period. If nothing else, it's time to find out if he can excel on a full-time basis.
"Will I be under a little more scrutiny? Of course," Henderson said. "That's something that comes with being in the NFL and being a third-year starter. That's not just something that comes with being the Mike linebacker. It's football."