Just ask Erin Henderson about the free agent market for linebackers this offseason. Erin thought he would be a commodity on the open market, possibly commanding a three year deal worth somewhere in the $9 million range, but in the end he had to come back to the Vikings for a measly $2 million for one year. Things have been even leaner for Erin’s brother E.J. who hit the market as an unrestricted free agent weeks ago and as far as we know has yet to get so much as a sniff.
There are lots of reasons for the lean traditional linebacker market. One is that, with the shift toward pass-heavy offenses, the position is simply not as valued as it used to be, at least not compared to the safety position or defensive end. The other is that, with the profusion of 3-4 defenses in the league, the outside pass-rushing types are the ones getting the money, not so much the old-fashioned non-blitzing 4-3 linebackers like the Hendersons.
In E.J.’s case there are extra complications. Namely, his age and the fact that his knees are shot. Given these factors plus the devaluation of the linebacker position, it should be no surprise that E.J. hasn’t seen a market develop for his services.
The upshot is, if E.J. wants to continue his NFL career, he will likely have to do it with the Vikings for a lot less money than he thinks he’s worth. In a blurb this morning Sid Hartman said there’s still “a good chance” E.J. will indeed return to the Vikings for at least one more season. Hartman said the hang-up between E.J. and the team has been E.J.’s insistence on receiving the same compensation he got in 2011. That would mean him getting $6.7 million for one year, and obviously that is not going to happen. Gimpy-kneed middle linebackers who can’t stay on the field on third down don’t get anywhere near $6 million a season.
During this apparently contentious negotiation with E.J., the Vikings have done their best to talk up Jasper Brinkley as his replacement, and have also added middle linebacker depth in the form of former Saint Marvin Mitchell. The point being, the Vikings really don’t think they need E.J. Henderson at this point, and E.J. would do well to get the hint and just take whatever money they’re willing to offer. If E.J. even gets $1 million for one year I’d be surprised.
Not that E.J. wouldn’t still be the starting MLB if he did sign, cause I think he would be. Jasper Brinkley may turn out to be a solid player but even with bad knees I think E.J. can beat him out. The point is, with the Vikings figuring to employ their nickel defense even more heavily this year than in the past – they didn’t use all those draft picks on secondary help for nothing – even if Henderson wins the MLB job he won’t be on the field much. His brother Erin proved last year that he’s better in coverage than the elder Henderson, meaning Erin and Chad Greenway would certainly be the nickel linebackers, relegating E.J. to run-stopping duties.
Can E.J. Henderson, even at his age and with his physical issues, still be an asset to a defense? Yes. But only as a low-paid role player. The sooner he figures out where he now fits in the grand scheme, the sooner E.J. will be back in purple and ready to contribute.