- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 27, 2003

It was a down year for linebackers in the NFL Draft and a downer of a Saturday for Maryland's E.J. Henderson. The Terrapins' All-American middle linebacker waited around with friends and family in his hometown of Aberdeen, Md., until he was taken with the eighth pick in the second round, No.40 overall, by the Minnesota Vikings.
By then, the draft was nearly six hours old.
"I really was surprised going so late, but what can you say?" Henderson told reporters. "I really didn't think I was going to drop to the second round."
Henderson was expected to go somewhere in the latter part of the first round according to most draft projections and was rated the 24th best player overall by ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper Jr.
Vikings coach Mike Tice, who played quarterback at Maryland from 1978 through 1980, indicated Henderson might start out backing up veteran Greg Biekert in the middle.
"E.J. turned out to be the highest-rated player we had left on our board in the second round," Tice said. "Plus, he's a guy that can learn behind Greg Biekert, who we think is a great pro, a real smart guy that can help bring E.J. Henderson along to one day replace him. So we're real excited about the pick, and certainly we'll be hearing that Maryland fight song pretty soon [in training camp]."
Henderson said he will accept any role he is given.
"I'm just trying to come in and learn the system and help the team however I can," he said. "I expect to be an impact player, somebody that is going to help the team in whatever way I can.
"If it's playing on defense, starting, second team, special teams, whatever I can do to help the team. … I think no matter where I'm playing, I will make plays. When you're watching film, you're gonna see me out there. You're gonna notice me."
Henderson benefited from the friendship between Vikings defensive coordinator George O'Leary and Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen, who worked together at Georgia Tech. Friedgen said he recommended Henderson highly.
"It's a good place for a Maryland guy to be," Friedgen said after the Terps' Red-White spring scrimmage. "E.J. will have a great NFL career."
Despite the addition of Henderson, it wasn't a great day for the Vikings. The team failed to complete a trade with Baltimore that would have added extra picks. Minnesota ended up passing on the No.7 pick altogether and had to wait two selections before taking defensive tackle Kevin Williams.
Friedgen said O'Leary told him the Vikings expected Henderson to be drafted somewhere between Nos.13 and 19 and "they didn't think they'd have a chance of getting him [after their first pick]."
Henderson, who won awards last season as college football's best defensive player and best linebacker, was the third linebacker selected. Most teams apparently did not have pressing needs at the position.
Oregon State's Nick Barnett was the only linebacker drafted in the first round. Green Bay took Barnett with the 29th pick. Packers coach Mike Sherman said Barnett's pass-coverage ability, an area in which the 6-1, 245-pound Henderson needs work, was a big plus.
"He's an every-down linebacker," Sherman said of Barnett. "We had him rated as the best linebacker in the draft."
Later, Georgia's Boss Bailey, brother of Redskins cornerback Champ Bailey, was taken in the second round by Detroit with the 34th overall selection. Both Barnett and Bailey played outside linebacker. After the Philadelphia Eagles traded up to take defensive end Jerome McDougal, "not many teams needed a middle linebacker," Kiper said.
Following a big junior year, Henderson had back surgery last April and started his senior season slowly. He came on strong during the second half and finished with a huge game against Tennessee in the Peach Bowl.
"He was back to his junior form," Kiper said. "The way he performed late in the season, back to full strength, I think maybe that back injury was a thing of the past."
Even though Henderson was pronounced fit at the NFL combine in March, ESPN reporter Chris Mortensen said he "heard some teams say they were not so certain of him because of the back."
Some scouts also expressed concern over Henderson's mediocre 4.8-second clocking in the 40-yard dash. But Mortensen's ESPN colleagues were high on Henderson.
"He's big and strong," former Vikings coach Dennis Green said. "He can blitz off the corner. He can play middle 'backer. He can take on the guard. He can take on the lead blocker. What else do you want in a middle linebacker?"
Added Mike Golic: "I think he's gonna help a lot on the inside. He is a between-the-tackles middle linebacker. He's the type of guy that's gonna fill inside, go sideline to sideline pretty well, but the bottom line with him is he's gonna come up the gut. … There is absolutely no question about his toughness."
Staff writer Rick Snider contributed to this report.

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