NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Over the course of his four-year career, Tennessee Titans RB Derrick Henry has been a hard player to figure out.
He is undoubtedly a crucial element of the Titans offense. He’s scored six total touchdowns through the first eight games of the 2019 season, and he’s on pace to run for 1,162 yards.
But is Henry valuable enough to warrant the Titans giving him a contract extension at the end of the season? That’s a question the organization will be forced to answer, as Henry is set to become an unrestricted free agent in March.
Now that Henry is halfway to completing his fourth season in the NFL, there’s a large enough sample size to evaluate just how valuable the former-Heisman winner is to the Titans.
Athletically, Derrick Henry is a bit of a freak of nature. His towering 6-3, 247-pound frame, combined with his breakaway speed, objectively makes him one of the NFL’s toughest players to tackle in the open field.
“He’s so unique, physically, for a running back,” QB Ryan Tannehill said. “You’ve only seen a few guys like him in history. You think of Brandon Jacobs back in the day with the Giants. Not too many times you see a running back with his sheer size, and then he has great vision and strength through that. He’s a tough guy to bring down.”
After struggling to do so for the first couple years of his career, Henry has learned how to use his size to his advantage, most notably in goal-line situations.
When the Titans get inside an opponent’s 5-yard line, they usually get Henry the ball, and he usually rewards them. Henry’s 17 rushing touchdowns since the start of the 2018 season are the second-most in the NFL, behind only Rams RB Todd Gurley’s total of 23.
Henry’s speed—his 4.54 40-time at the 2016 NFL Scouting Combine doesn’t do him justice—makes him a constant threat to rip off big runs, and he frequently does so.
The most famous of Henry’s long runs is, of course, his 99-yard TD against Jacksonville last December. But since that game, Henry has recorded a rush or reception of at least 18 yards in eight out of the 11 games the Titans have played.
Those long plays can serve as a major spark for the entire Titans offense.
“If we can get him through the line of scrimmage with some steam on him into that second level, he’s a tough guy to bring down and we’ll see our running game take off a little bit more,” Tannehill said.
THE NOT SO GOOD
Here’s the problem with that: far too often, the Titans have not been able to get Henry through to the line of scrimmage.
As a result, Derrick Henry currently leads the NFL in negative rushes.
Sure, poor interior offensive line play and subpar play-calling from offensive coordinator Arthur Smith make Henry’s life a lot tougher in that regard. But some of the blame certainly should fall on his shoulders.
“When runners, especially Derrick, tries to get into his fourth or fifth step, it’s a little different than a guy with a different skillset,” head coach Mike Vrabel said. “Everybody’s very aware of what his skill set is, and if we can get him into his fourth or fifth step, we feel very confident in his ability and our ability to gain meaningful yards.
“But if we can’t do that, that’s hard to ask him to make some of those cuts that a smaller, quicker back would make.”
And that’s precisely what Henry’s game is missing: the ability to make cuts in the hole.
When there’s a big lane to run into, Henry looks great. When there’s not, he’s not able to be of much use to the Titans.
Henry also struggles in the passing game, making him a mostly one-dimensional player. He has rarely been a viable check-down option for Titans quarterbacks during his time with the team, and he already has three drops in the 2019 season.
Just 61.5% of Henry’s targets in 2019 have resulted in a catch, which is concerning, considering that almost every one of Henry’s targets has been at, very close to or behind the line of scrimmage.
Running backs are among the lowest-paid positions in the NFL. 2019’s highest-paid running back in terms of cap hit, David Johnson of the Cardinals, will make $9.75 million by the end of the season.
There are 124 players in the NFL, nearly enough to compose three entire rosters, who make more than that.
Extending running backs may be a cheap proposition, but is it worth it? Considering the number of talented players that teams have found in the later rounds (4-7) of the NFL Draft over the last few years, the answer to that question may be no.
Jordan Howard, a fifth-round pick in 2016, made the Pro Bowl as a rookie. Phillip Lindsay, who went undrafted in 2018, also was Pro Bowler in his rookie season. Marlon Mack, a fourth-rounder in 2017, is on pace to rush for 1,348 yards in 2019 through seven games.
That list, already an inexhaustive one, excludes notable third-round picks from the last few years like Kareem Hunt and James Conner.
OTHER PLAYERS TO PAY
Also, the Titans have a number of other key contributors who are set to become unrestricted free agents at the end of the 2019 season. That lists include QB Ryan Tannehill, CB Logan Ryan and RT Jack Conklin.
The replaceability of the running back position alone should probably lead teams away from giving out contract extensions to backs who aren’t one of the truly elite players at the position.
That, along with the fact that the Titans have multiple other free agents whose extensions should probably be prioritized and Henry’s lack of passing game acumen, leads to the conclusion that the Titans may need to let him go at the end of the season.
He’s done a lot of good things for the team over the course of his career, and he will be a major component to the Titans’ push for a playoff spot over the final eight weeks of the 2019 season.
But Derrick Henry’s limitations make it tough to justify spending valuable cap space on him.
Cover image: Jim Brown/USA Today