Erin Henderson might be the next big free agent bargain in the NFL, and the evidence is sitting there for anybody who cares to look. It’s not that hard to find these free agent diamonds in the rough, you just have to watch more tape than your rivals, and see what they are missing; the tape doesn’t lie.
At times, the NFL seems to operate on a season-long delay. Moves made one year don’t seem to make any sense until you look at the season before, and only then do you realize that the league is just late catching up to reality. As Brian Billick put it in his book, More Than a Game, “…the simple fact is you can’t monitor seventeen hundred far-flung players over the course of their careers the way you can isolate, test and quiz a few hundred at the combine … the odds of making a mistake with a free agent are much greater than with the draft”. Because of that, if you can get in early, attack the tape, and stay ahead of the curve, you can pick up a bargain in free agency.
Fortunately, Pro Football Focus has already done all of that for you–logging nearly 5,000 hours of tape review each season, covering every player, on every play, in every game–so we’re going to give you the low down on a player that should be an exciting signing for somebody this offseason.
Erin Henderson was once a big-time prospect in college. Following his older brother, E.J. Henderson, to Maryland, Erin had a rough start to his college career, in what would be an interesting preview of his start to life in the big leagues. He red-shirted during his freshman season, and then missed his entire second year with a torn ACL. After that, Henderson earned second-team All-ACC honors in 2006 before a real breakout season in 2007 where he was first-team All-ACC and a semifinalist for the Butkus Award given to the nation’s top linebacker. That year, the award was won by James Laurinaitis, and at one point the pair were considered the class of the linebacker group of 2008. Both linebackers experienced a fall in that draft. Laurinaitis fell to the top of the second round, but for Henderson the fall was far more precipitous–landing out of the draft entirely.
It’s fair to say that the Top 10 talk for Laurinaitis was probably just a product of the hype machine artificially inflating his stock before the evaluation process had had a chance to kick into top gear, and his fall was always inevitable, but Henderson’s plummet out of the draft was more difficult to explain away. There were concerns with his injury history, and there was talk among some that his knee may be a long-term issue, which would hold him back as a pro. Some even speculated that there was a failed drugs test in his history that never saw the light of day.
Whatever the reason, Henderson became a priority free agent–one of the dozens of players teams are hoping fall out of the draft so that they can get on phones and snag them in a post-draft bidding war. The Minnesota Vikings had the inside track on this process, because his older brother was their starting middle linebacker, and the two siblings had never played together before. Henderson’s camp claimed that it was never a factor, and that the Vikings were simply his best shot at getting game time, but you have to think the opportunity to line up alongside his older brother was part of Erin’s decision-making process.
Once with the Vikings, Henderson began the usual process of just trying to make the team, and he was part of a newly concerted effort from Minnesota to add serious players to their special teams units, rather than just leaving them to chance. He showed well on special teams, often one of the first downfield on coverage units and looked like a player with something about him during preseason outings, but with Ben Leber firmly entrenched at outside linebacker, he saw only 33 snaps on defense. He did, however, manage four tackles from those snaps and amassed 21 special teams stops in that period. He looked like a keeper, even in short glimpses, and the Vikings seemed to agree, eventually.
Last offseason, the Vikings, firmly up against the cap, decided to let Ben Leber walk in free agency and Erin Henderson wound up with the starting gig. He was lined up as the weakside linebacker, next to his older brother, with Chad Greenway on the strong side, but in the Vikings’ scheme, he played far more like a traditional strong side linebacker, often up at the line of scrimmage and attacking blockers rather than flowing to the football. With E.J. suffering from a knee injury, the Vikings ended up trying to manage his snaps, and Erin found himself with significant time as the middle linebacker in nickel situations, which he had previously come off the field for. He excelled at both jobs. He graded well playing the run (+17.3), in coverage (+2.0), and even rushing the passer (+0.3), also managing to go the entire season without being penalized as he turned in one of the best performances from a 4-3 outside linebacker in the entire league.
Despite often having to take on and defeat the block of a full back or other lead blocker, Erin Henderson finished with 43 solo tackles and another nine assists, which was good enough for ninth amongst 4-3 outside linebackers. What makes that more impressive is that he played significantly fewer snaps than all of the players ahead of him, primarily as a pure two-down linebacker for much of the season. He made a tackle on 16.1% of all of the plays he was in on run defense, which is the single highest mark at his position in the league, showing an excellent ability to take on and defeat a block, and then locate the ball carrier and bring him down, often at or behind the line of scrimmage.
Looking solely at defensive stops–tackles that represent an offensive failure–Henderson again ranks in the Top 10, and leads the league in terms of percentage of run snaps that he recorded a stop on. Just looking at tackle figures you might not be drawn instantly to his name, but Erin Henderson made more positive defensive plays relative to how much he was on the field than any other linebacker, and showed a real knack for shedding blocks and affecting the play. Against the run he wasn’t just having a good season, but there may not have been a better player in the NFL at his position last year.
But it’s not as if he was purely a two-down thumping linebacker, limited to a role against the run and capped in potential because he can’t be trusted on passing downs. Henderson’s performance in coverage, especially when he found himself playing middle linebacker in nickel defensive packages, is what makes him extremely intriguing to any potential suitors, and shows the versatility that would lend itself to playing any of the three linebacker spots in a 4-3 defense. He displayed surprisingly good coverage instincts, reading plays very quickly and diagnosing routes fast enough to be able to make plays in coverage against players that would fancy their chances when matched up with a middle linebacker.
Against the Saints in Week 15 he read a flare route to Darren Sproles and broke on it so quickly from the middle of the field that he took Sproles down for no gain by the sideline. In Week 6 against the Bears he recognized a chip and release into the flat by TE Kellen Davis from the far side of the formation and is able to cover it while both of the other linebackers closer to the pattern blitzed, making a tackle for a short gain. He also did something his older brother E.J. has never been able to do consistently, show the speed and agility to drop deep into coverage in a Tampa-2 and influence the deep middle of the field.
His brother has always been at his best coming forward, and was at his worst on his deepest drops when he had to run with receivers down the middle of the field, but Erin looked well capable of it. Against Carolina in Week 8 he did exactly that, breaking up a deep pass to WR Legadu Naanee in the end zone that would have been a touchdown. He had his back to the football but was able to read the hands of Naanee as he reacted to the ball coming in and break up the pass. That is the kind of play you usually only see from linebackers with a certain level of experience and veteran savvy, but Erin Henderson made it in his first season starting, and one of his first games with any time at all as middle linebacker.
The numbers back up those tales from the tape. He ranked inside the Top 10 (sixth) in terms of yards given up per coverage snap, ranked 12th in number of coverage snaps per reception allowed, and was one of only a few linebackers with significant playing time not to allow a single touchdown on the season.
Henderson was one of the most effective outside linebackers in the league against the run, showing that the flashes we saw from preseason and reserve play were fair reflections of his ability, but we have only just begun to scratch the surface of what he is capable of as an every-down linebacker. The Vikings have yet to lock him down to a long-term contract, and if he indeed reaches the free agent market, they’ll be exposed to the risk of losing one of their best defensive players purely because they don’t appreciate how well he has played, or the value of that play. Any team out there that has been watching the tape closely represents a serious challenger to the Vikings for his signature, and if a team can manage to beat the Vikings to the punch, they may just have themselves the bargain of the 2012 free agent period.