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What should the Titans do with Derrick Henry this offseason?

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Unraveling all the layers of a very complicated question.

NFL: AFC Championship-Tennessee Titans at Kansas City Chiefs Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

The Titans have quite a few interesting contracts to work out this offseason, but the most intriguing of them all is probably Derrick Henry’s. The 2016 second round pick exploded in the back half of the 2019 season, winning the rushing title and carrying the Titans offense to two huge playoff wins over the Patriots and Ravens.

That success raised Henry’s profile in the NFL landscape, and with it, his potential payday. While making the media rounds at the Super Bowl this week, Rich Eisen asked him if “Zeke money is the floor” for his new deal and Henry responded that it was.

“Zeke money” obviously refers to Cowboys star Ezekiel Elliott’s record breaking running back contract signed last offseason after a brief holdout. He ended up getting a six year, $90 million dollar contract extension with $50 million in guaranteed money.

A couple things we need to point out about this clip before we get too far down this rabbit hole:

  1. Eisen brings up “Zeke money”, not Henry, and the host does a good job of framing his question to get the sound bite he wanted. Henry wasn’t going to say “nah I don’t want Zeke money”.
  2. Henry has mentioned he wants to be back in Tennessee all week as well and saying that he wants Zeke money in the media doesn’t mean that’s ultimately what he’ll get on the open market. He’s trying to set his value as high as possible heading into negotiations.

So I don’t think Henry did anything wrong here by any means. He should get as much money as he possibly can this offseason. Running backs are very unlikely to get a third contract in the NFL so this is his chance to maximize his career earnings as a football player. Nobody should expect him to sell himself (and his family) short.

He’s also publicly clarified that he misunderstood what Eisen was asking in his comment under this Instagram post, saying “Misinterpreted what he said , thought he was saying ‘Zeke is the floor’ , meaning he holds the floor as him being the highest paid at our position . So I was replying yes lol oh well.”

That being said, the question of whether or not the Titans should hand out a massive contract for a running back in the modern NFL is complicated with lots of angles to consider. So let’s break it down into a pros and cons list.

Why the Titans shouldn’t give Henry a huge contract

“Running Backs Don’t Matter”

Let’s start with this popular phrase because this is the crux of the argument against giving Henry a big pay day, much less making him the highest paid back in NFL history.

Of course, the phrase “running backs don’t matter” is somewhat hyperbolic to begin with — anyone who has watched Bishop Sankey and Antonio Andrews can tell you that — but don’t let that distract you from it’s real meaning because there is some merit to the idea.

Passing is king in the modern NFL, and while we’ve seen a few teams buck that trend lately (the 2019 Titans included), the fact is that being an effective passing team is the single best route to consistently winning football games. I studied various stats and their effect on a team’s success a year and a half ago and found that passing attacks were approximately three times more important to playing winning football than rushing success and there are plenty of other similar studies that show that passing is simply the more efficient way to move the ball.

However, the 2019 season has provided some evidence that pushes back against the runaway “pass to win” narrative. Looking at first half run-pass splits from Sharp Football Stats (to eliminate the effect of game script in the second halves of games), you’ll find that the four run-heaviest teams in the league — the Ravens (53% run), Vikings (46%), 49ers (45%), and Titans (45%) — all made the playoffs and finished in the top ten in scoring during the regular season. The league’s best offense, Baltimore, ran the ball to an extreme degree.

That being said, the leading rushers among running backs on those four teams were Mark Ingram ($5.3M cap hit, Dalvin Cook ($1.7M), Derrick Henry ($1.7M), and Raheem Mostert ($3.2M). That’s a pretty wide mix of running back archetypes. You’ve got the aging-but-still-effective veteran in Mark Ingram, two former second round picks on their rookie contracts, and an undrafted journeyman on his seventh NFL team. Only Ingram ranks among the ten highest paid backs in the league and he’s on the very fringe of that list at number ten.

If you look at the backs who have gotten big paydays lately, the list is pretty grim. The ten highest average salaries at the position currently are:

  1. Ezekiel Elliott ($15.0M/year)
  2. Todd Gurley ($14.4M/year)
  3. Le’Veon Bell ($13.1M/year)
  4. David Johnson ($13.0M/year)
  5. Devonta Freeman ($8.3M/year)
  6. Saquon Barkley ($7.8M/year)
  7. Jerick McKinnon ($7.5M/year)
  8. Leonard Fournette ($6.8M/year)
  9. Duke Johnson ($5.2M/year)
  10. Mark Ingram ($5.0M/year)

Only two of those ten backs participated in the playoffs this year (Duke Johnson and Mark Ingram) and only two ranked in the top ten in rushing (Ezekiel Elliott and Leonard Fournette). It’s also telling that two players on rookie contracts — Barkley and Fournette — make this top ten list. Most of these contracts, particularly the ones for Gurley, Bell, Johnson, and McKinnon are already considered disasters for their respective teams.

Some of these guys are great examples of just how dependent running backs are — even elite ones — on their surrounding environment. Le’Veon Bell was wildly successful in the Steelers offense running behind one of the best offensive lines in the game. After signing with the Jets before this past season, he produced career lows in yards per attempt (3.2), yards per game (52.6), and yards per touch (4.0).

Todd Gurley is another good example. Sure, there are some injury questions with him that could be factoring in, but the Rams losing center John Sullivan and left guard Rodger Saffold was a huge factor in his pedestrian 3.8 yards per attempt this season.

A great offensive line can make relatively pedestrian running backs look great. The 49ers proved that emphatically over the last couple years as Tevin Coleman, Matt Breida, and Raheem Mostert all took turns being wildly productive in San Francisco’s outstanding run game. The Steelers offense didn’t miss a beat when they transitioned from Le’Veon Bell to James Conner. In fact, they scored more points during the year that Bell sat out than they did during Bell’s All-Pro season in 2017. When Todd Gurley was injured late in the 2018 season, C.J. Anderson stepped in straight off the streets and rushed for 488 yards and 4 touchdowns in just five games of action (three of which saw him split carries with Gurley).

Saying that running backs don’t matter isn’t entirely fair. There are good running backs and bad running backs just like any other position on the football field but you aren’t going to see many rushers elevating their team to a substantial degree. They’re far more likely to be a product of a very good offensive line or a very good offensive system than a driver of results.

Age/Mileage

While some positions can maintain a high level of play well into their 30s — quarterbacks and offensive linemen especially — running backs peak early in their careers and tend to fall off a cliff from a performance standpoint when they enter their late 20s. This running back aging study from Chase Stuart finds that the position generally peaks at age 26 and then begins a relatively rapid decline in production.

Henry turned 26 last month so the Titans will be paying for seasons that typically see a decline in performance for running backs in his next contract. A four year deal would see him finish his contract at age 29.

Then you have the wear and tear factor. Henry is a bit unique in the sense that most great backs enter the league and take on a bellcow workload from the jump. Henry’s rise to prominence has been slow and steady, logging just 110 carries in his rookie year, followed by 211 in year two, 215 in year three, and then 386 this season (including postseason).

He also doesn’t do much in the passing game — more on that in a minute — so if you look at total touches, his 989 number is well short of a guy like Ezekiel Elliott (1,433 total touches since 2016), but he still ranks sixth in the league during that time frame behind Elliott, Todd Gurley, Le’Veon Bell, Melvin Gordon, and Carlos Hyde.

His college workload was similar. Henry gradually built from 36 touches as a freshman, to 177 as a sophomore, and then 406 in his Heisman winning junior season. His 619 total touches at Alabama are a large number, but still not quite as high as some of his contemporaries like Elliott (650) and Gordon (653).

High school was a different story as the Yulee Hornets ran Henry 1,397 times in four years. However, it has to be said that high school wear and tear for a guy like Henry is probably not terribly critical. His stats — 12,124 rushing yards and 153 touchdowns — and his tape show that he wasn’t really tackled that often anyway.

Then you have the “curse of 300” factor when it comes to Henry’s effectiveness in the short term. There have been several studies, including this one from Jacob Trowbridge, that link a 300-plus carry season with a decline in production the following year. I don’t think there is anything magical about that 300th carry that turns a running back into a pumpkin the following year, but it stands to reason that a heavy workload can have a ripple effect on subsequent years.

The Titans don’t have to look any further than DeMarco Murray for a meaningful example of that. Murray famously had his 1,845 yard All-Pro in his final season with the Cowboys in 2014. After signing a big free agent contract with the Eagles the next offseason, he struggled mightily, seeing his yards per carry nosedive from 4.7 to 3.6. That eventually led to his exit from Philly via trade to the Titans. Murray rebounded the next year, leading the AFC in rushing and finishing with a 4.4 yards per carry average. However, the Titans leaned on him heavily that season as well, giving him 293 carries. The following season, Murray struggled to stay healthy and his effectiveness, again, dropped with another 3.6 yards per carry average.

There are some exceptions to this rule — just like with any rule — but there are far more examples that back up the idea that heavy workloads lead to a regression in performance the following year. The Trowbridge article linked above found that the 11 running backs who reached 300 carries in a season between 2011 and 2017 saw their average yards per carry drop from 4.75 in their 300 carry season to 3.99 in their post-300 carry season. That trend extends back into the previous decade as well with almost 75% of all running backs seeing a decline in fantasy points in a season after getting 300-plus carries. Obviously, fantasy points is irrelevant to real NFL teams, but it can be a good illustration of individual production.

Henry may or may not prove to be an exception to the 300-carry rule and he may or may not prove to be one of the few backs able to defy Father Time, but the Titans must be aware of these numbers going into contract negotiations. There is a reason why the top twelve rushers in the league in 2019 were all 25 years old or younger. It’s a young man’s position.

Two Down Back

Every player has strengths and weaknesses and it’s important for the organization to properly assess what those are when weighing a big contract like this. One of Henry’s weaknesses is his lack of contribution in the passing game.

Since 2016, Henry ranks 63rd among all running backs in receptions with just 57. He set career highs in 2019 with 18 catches for 206 yards and 2 touchdowns, but those numbers fall well short of other top running backs. Ezekiel Elliott had 54 catches for 420 yards. Le’Veon Bell had 66 catches for 461 yards. Leonard Fournette even had 76 catches for 522 yards.

Now obviously, a lot of that lack of production is simply due to the fact that the Titans don’t throw it to Henry often. When they do — almost exclusively on screens — he’s been pretty successful with those opportunities.

However, being successful on occasional screens is not the same as being a true three down back. DeMarco Murray was a true three down back during his time here. During his excellent 2016 season he was third on the team in receptions with 53 grabs for 377 yards and was particularly effective on third and fourth downs, converting 10 of his 23 targets in those situations into first downs. That may not look great at first glance, but a 43.5% third down conversion rate is highly effective. Only seven teams had a third down conversion rate higher than that number in 2019.

Murray was successful on third downs because he was a true threat out of the backfield. It’s not just that he could catch the football, it’s that he could run the full route tree for running backs. The Titans would send him out on flat routes, Texas routes, choice routes, and wheel routes from a backfield alignment in obvious passing situations and Marcus Mariota trusted him to make plays even when he wasn’t wide open.

NFL Game Pass

Henry is unlikely to ever become that type of running back and that’s OK, but we have to acknowledge that he’s not a Christian McCaffrey or Alvin Kamara type talent in the passing game when you’re talking about paying him top of the market running back money. The Titans are always going to need to have a capable third down back to pair with Henry. His long strides and relatively slow build up speed don’t make for great traits when it comes to running routes. Catching screens and the occasional dump off is likely the cap to his involvement as a pass catcher.

Franchise Tag

Another factor on the “don’t give Henry a mega-deal” side of this argument is the franchise tag option. The Titans have three players who are candidates for either the franchise tag or transition tag this offseason so they’ll need to make some decisions about who to prioritize for long term contracts among Ryan Tannehill, Derrick Henry, and Jack Conklin.

The franchise tag values for those three positions are projected to be as follows according to OverTheCap.com:

  • Quarterback: $26,895,000
  • Running Back: $12,474,000
  • Offensive Line: $16,102,000

It would qualify as a mild surprise if Tannehill or Conklin were to end up commanding an annual salary that was higher than their franchise tag numbers in 2020. It seems more likely — especially if Henry is looking at using Zeke’s contract as a starting point — that Henry might clear the $12.5M AAV mark.

Given the way running backs tend to age in their late 20s, it might make more sense to lock Henry in for one more year at a number that seems relatively reasonable and gives the team immediate flexibility if the 449 touches that he accumulated during the 2019 season start to show in his 2020 performance.

Why the Titans should do whatever it takes to make sure he’s back in Tennessee in 2020

Value to the Titans Offense

We tend to get carried away with the idea that all football teams should be chasing the same ideal formula for success in the NFL. The “passing is all that matters and teams who run are dumb” crowd is already rushing to hold up the Chiefs as proof that a balanced offense (like the Niners or Titans) can’t compete with a sling-it-all-over-the-yard attack like Kansas City.

Maybe that’s true — though if a 49ers corner doesn’t bite on an underneath route on 3rd and 15 the conversation is probably a little different today — but there aren’t 31 copies of Patrick Mahomes to go around. Most teams, even if they’re striving to find the next Mahomes, are going to have to build around a limited quarterback. Even rarer are the teams that can have a special talent at quarterback on a rookie contract and surround him with talents like Travis Kelce, Tyreek Hill, and an elite pass blocking offensive line. Of course it doesn’t make sense for a team like that to pay a running back big time money. You could slot nearly anyone next to Patrick Mahomes and have success on the ground.

The reality that the Titans — and most other teams around the league for that matter — face is a little bit different than that ideal world. Teams like the Niners, Titans, and Ravens were smart to build their attacks a little differently. Asking Jimmy Garrapolo, Ryan Tannehill, or even Lamar Jackson to drop back and throw the ball 35 times per game like Mahomes would have likely been asking for trouble.

That reality, combined with the obvious leap in rushing production between Henry and Dion Lewis, makes Henry more valuable to Tennessee than the top running back on almost every other NFL team. The Titans can build a successful offense around Ryan Tannehill — they proved that beyond the shadow of a doubt in 2019 — but Henry is a big piece of that.

Despite research that suggests that rushing success has little to no effect on the effectiveness of play action passing, I find it hard to believe that teams gearing up for the Titans and coaches talking about stopping 22 all week doesn’t have some impact on how aggressively their linebackers react to run keys.

You can certainly provide a convincing argument that Henry’s success made Tannehill’s job easier. You can also make a strong case that Tannehill’s success was responsible for Henry’s breakout. What I would suggest is that Tannehill and Henry’s success was amplified by each other. I don’t know that you get one without the other.

Unique Talent

It’s hard to compare Henry to other running backs simply because we really have never seen anyone quite like him in the NFL in a long time. There have been a few other 6’-3”, 250-pound runners in the league and there have been several guys with his home run threat speed, but the number of backs who had both elements can be counted on one hand.

Finding comparisons for Henry and what we can expect from a durability standpoint as he enters his late 20s is difficult. We know that running backs in general age poorly, but what about a giant back who keeps himself in world class physical condition and has never been sidelined for more than a game due to injury in his entire football career.

His most serious injury — a broken tibia suffered during a scrimmage in his first spring at Alabama — was seven years and 1,602 touches ago. Since then, he’s had a pair of calf strains — one cost him a game during his rookie season and then the second cost him some training camp reps — and the hamstring issue that ended up causing him to sit out the Saints game late this year.

Outside of the hamstring issue, it’s hard to remember Henry even being slow to get up from a hit during his first four years in Tennessee. You certainly don’t have any chronic injury concerns that would be worrisome as he heads into year five in the NFL.

In addition to being uniquely built, Henry is also tailor made for the Titans outside zone based offense. He’s able to take advantage of a chance to build speed in the backfield and has become an expert at reading leverage on the fly and finding the right lane to exploit. This line from Conor Orr’s interview with Alex Gibbs — commonly known as the godfather of the outside zone scheme — really drives home how ideal his skill set is for Tennessee’s bread and butter play:

In short, if the original stewards of zone rushing were to have conjured a running back out of their wildest imagination to perfectly fit the most potent rushing scheme in football, they probably would have drawn up something similar to Henry.

The Titans could certainly find another running back who could have success running in this scheme behind this offensive line — that group ranked 4th in the NFL in “Adjusted Line Yards” metric — but it would be hard to imagine them finding someone who can reach the levels that Henry did in 2019. It also takes some time for an offensive line and a back to gel so Henry has some inherent value for this franchise due to the fact that the Titans are set to return at least four starters along the offensive line (all five if they also re-sign Conklin).

So Henry is a physical unicorn who fits what the Titans want to do offensively, never gets hurt, and has an unquestioned work ethic that seems highly unlikely to disappear after a big payday. That’s something that sounds worthy of investment.

Face of the Franchise Factor

The Titans have been one of the most anonymous franchises in the NFL over the past decade. Part of that is a result of a small market, but stars can thrive in small markets in this league (Mahomes is doing just fine for himself in Kansas City). The Titans simply haven’t had enough players that were good enough to emerge onto the radar of the casual NFL fan.

Henry did just that during his remarkable run that saw him win the regular season rushing title and follow that up with 446 yards rushing in the Titans run to the AFC Championship game. His playoff total ranks as the 6th best postseason performance by a running back in NFL history. Those prolific stats and Henry’s unique build/style helped him become the face of the Titans franchise.

He spent the past two weeks in Florida — first at the Pro Bowl and then in Miami — doing media hits for all the major outlets. It’s been a long time since a Titans player was such a constant on national TV and radio coverage.

In Nashville, Henry has risen to favored son status. A Heisman winning running back from the region’s most popular college program who has been outstanding for the Titans franchise both on and off the field, it’s hard to overstate how unpopular a decision to let him walk to another team over money would be to the local fan base.

That’s a risk that some franchises could certainly take, but the Titans are just now starting to recapture some long-dormant sections of the fan base and a lot of that traction can be traced back to Henry’s emergence as a true star in the league.

Want to build on the momentum created during the playoffs and keep Nissan Stadium from being filled with visiting fans this fall? Re-signing Henry to a long term contract would be a great start.

Likely Rise in Salary Cap

This offseason is going to be a little different because of the uncertainty surrounding the new CBA that is currently in negotiation between the league and the NFLPA. There is some question as to whether the practice of rolling over unused cap space will continue in the new agreement (or whether rolling from 2020 to 2021 will be an option even if the clause remains in the new deal).

There is also the question of what the new CBA will do to the cap itself. The current CBA has the players getting 47% of league revenue, but the new deal sounds likely to bump that number up to about 48%. That sounds like a small difference, but that would represent an extra $4M of cap space per year by itself. If the CBA is agreed upon prior to the start of the 2019 season, there is a good chance that the NFL would bump this revenue split immediately and revise the salary cap accordingly. There is precedent for that in previous CBA negotiations.

Then you have the aspect of the new CBA expanding the revenue pie itself. One of the big discussion points in the negotiations has been the possibility of expanding the regular season to a 17-game schedule. The format for that expanded schedule would include a shortening of the preseason from four games to two and adds a second bye week for each team during the regular season. Each team would play one neutral site game in addition to eight home games and eight away games.

While the NFL will lose a little bit of gate revenue from having one fewer home game in each market, they’d more than make up for it with the additional value that two additional weeks of regular season football for their television broadcast partners would bring. There is also the possibility of adding a seventh playoff team in each conference and that would take the total number of playoff games available for broadcast from 11 to 13. That’s not an insignificant difference when you consider the kind of ratings numbers that NFL playoff games pull.

NFL revenue seems poised to boom (even more than it already is) if they move to the 17-game format. The league’s television contracts are going to be re-negotiated within the next two years and given the ever-expanding landscape of streaming services and platforms that are expected to bid on the NFL’s TV rights and the ratings rebound the league has experienced the last two years, it seems likely that prices for broadcast rights are going to be astronomical.

More revenue means a higher salary cap and that could make even a big money extension for Henry look like a bargain within the next couple years. Obviously, there is some risk involved in making that assumption if you’re Jon Robinson, but I’d say the odds of the cap making a significant jump in the next few seasons is pretty high.


The Verdict

OK, there is a ton of contradictory information above, but I believe the two statements below to both true:

  1. Paying running backs big money rarely works in the favor of the team.
  2. Letting Henry walk would be a mistake for the Titans.

Yes, signing a running back to a second contract flies in the face of what is now considered conventional NFL wisdom, but conventional wisdom isn’t going to work for every team. The Titans have built an offense that is both balanced and highly effective. Henry is a key part of that.

I’d hope that Jon Robinson can find a way to bring Henry back without resetting the running back market. Regardless of what you think about their respective talent levels, Henry simply doesn’t have the resume that Elliott did coming into his negotiations last offseason.

Elliott had averaged over 125 total yards per game for three straight seasons while Henry is still yet to top that total. Yes, part of that is opportunity, but that’s part of the package that Dallas was buying with that record setting contract. Zeke was a proven commodity with a long track record of success as a three down back and the pedigree of a former fourth overall pick.

If the Titans can get Henry back in the fold with a deal that averages somewhere around $13M per year with a reasonable out after two years, I think that’s a win. This franchise can’t afford to lose their most marketable star and this offense can’t afford to fall from an elite rushing team to just average or below average. We’ve seen what Dion Lewis looked like behind the same offensive line the last two years. It’s not as easy as just putting another warm body back there.

Henry has ranked no lower than second in the NFL in yards after contact per attempt among qualifying running backs in 2017, 2018, and 2019 per PFF. That’s elite running back play and it’s proven to be a consistent, repeatable result for Henry over three years now. This is a player that has improved every single season that he’s been in the league and has emerged as a leader — maybe even the leader — of an ascendant Titans team in the last year.

Go ahead and draft a running back to serve as Henry’s running mate — and maybe even an eventual successor — but don’t let the King move his throne out of Nashville.