MANKATO, Minn.-- Maturity brought more money and a spot back in the middle for E.J. Henderson.
The first time he was put in this position as the defense's lead communicator, Henderson had some trouble. The Vikings weren't very good then defensively, and 2004 was Henderson's second NFL season.
It was a struggle, with plenty of missed tackles and coverages while Minnesota's defense again tried to adjust to a new coordinator - that year it was Ted Cottrell - and keep up with the prolific offense.
Sam Cowart was brought in to be the middle linebacker in 2005 and Napoleon Harris moved there in 2006, allowing Henderson to roam on the weak side with fewer responsibilities. He played well enough to warrant a five-year contract extension last December worth up to $25 million with $10 million guaranteed.
"You move on," Henderson said. "Whatever you learn, you come back the next play and play again. As a player, you mature from year to year. As a person, you mature from year to year. Just take the good with the bad and try not to let it happen again."
The growth, as he alluded, has been off the field as well as on. Henderson was arrested for drunken driving early in his career, and he and two other since-released teammates were involved in a fight outside a nightclub the summer after his first season. Charges were ultimately dropped, but it was a lesson in behavior learned.
The one-time Butkus Award winner at the University of Maryland and second-round draft pick by the Vikings in 2003, Henderson has a stone face and a soft voice that seems out of place at a position that demands an extrovert.
"I always consider him a vocal leader," fellow linebacker Dontarrious Thomas said. "When out there on the field - just like me, when I'm out there - things just change and the light turns on for the guy."
Henderson acknowledged some advancement in that area.
"I try to open it up a little bit, try to make a conscious effort to be a little more vocal," he said. "It's what I've been doing since I played football, so it's not new to call the huddle, set the front and communicate."
Harris was a free agent who signed with the Kansas City Chiefs, which made room for Chad Greenway to move in at Henderson's vacated spot on the outside. Ben Leber has stayed at the other outside position, and Thomas - who like Henderson has had his share of struggles since being drafted in the second round - will probably be the primary backup at all three spots.
It's a group that enters the season with far fewer questions than last year, after the steadiness and production provided by Henderson and Leber throughout 2006. Greenway, the first-round draft pick who suffered a season-ending knee injury while covering a kickoff in the first exhibition game, has been practicing at full speed since the spring.
"I think we've got the utmost respect for each other and confidence in each other, so it's just a matter right now of getting out there and jelling with these guys," Henderson said.
Leber has been hobbled by a strained calf muscle for much of training camp, but he returned to full participation in practice on Tuesday. Greenway has been going all out all the time. Coach Brad Childress joked he might have to give Greenway a sedative for Friday's preseason game against the St. Louis Rams because of the time Greenway has had to wait to suit up.
He'll take his cues from Henderson, who has helped teach Greenway a little bit about playing the outside and will be telling him this fall where to line up from that important spot in the middle.
"He has great leadership qualities," Greenway said. "The way he played last year makes us want to play well for him."
Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press