Why re-signing Derrick Henry makes sense for Titans

Derrick Henry’s impressive production in a pass-crazed era has created a compelling chapter in running back lore. With 377 rushing yards, Tennessee’s menacing back already ranks seventh for a single playoffs after two games. 

Henry’s success has not only forged the most meaningful Titans stretch since their Super Bowl XXXIV journey 20 years ago; it has come at the conclusion of his contract year. The fourth-year ball-carrier’s 2019 rushing title, transcendent January and old-school skill set make him one of the more interesting extension candidates in the running back position’s history.

Henry’s contract situation coincides with the impending free agency of Titans QB Ryan Tannehill, who’s 9-3 as a starter since replacing the ineffective Marcus Mariota in Week 7. Signing both to huge deals will significantly affect how the team builds around them. But Tennessee’s late-season run essentially forces it extend this partnership.

The risks for Tennessee are obvious: Tannehill’s pre-Titans career with the Dolphins was underwhelming, and recent running back extensions have not worked out. But re-signing Henry might not be as risky as you think.

Henry’s 1,540 regular-season rushing yards and trancendent playoff performances in Foxborough and Baltimore put him on his own tier in scariest-back-alive discussions. But his style peaked decades ago, value-wise. Aside from a few slow-developing cross-field screens, Henry offers little in the passing game. True three-down backs set the market; no Henry-type player earns more than $5 million annually on a veteran contract. With the 26-year-old bruiser in line to perhaps triple that, this will be a tricky negotiation.

The new running back market’s early returns are not promising. The Rams reshaped the position’s salary scale in 2018, via Los Angeles Ram Todd Gurley’s four-year, $57.5M deal. Gurley’s knee trouble already makes this look like a costly mistake. Subsequent Cardinals and Jets top-market payments to David Johnson and Le’Veon Bell, respectively, burned those franchises as well. Ezekiel Elliott’s NFL-high $15M-per-year contract has worked out thus far for the Cowboys, but his peers’ struggles should prompt pessimism. Gurley, Johnson and Bell each have a 750-plus-yard receiving season to their credit; Elliott surpassed 550 in 2018. Henry’s best: 206 yards. And 75 of those came on a Week 1 screen pass.

However, Henry’s track record oddly points to the ex-Heisman winner sustaining value into his late 20s. While he absorbs (and delivers) punishment on a Jerome Bettis or Brandon Jacobs level, Henry only has 804 regular-season carries. That ranks 83rd all time through four seasons. (When sorted by total touches after four years, Henry sits 106th.) When the Titans gave Eddie George a six-year, $41.25M extension in 2000, his first four seasons included 1,360 carries. Elliott has 1,169; Adrian Peterson logged 1,198 through Year 4.

Even factoring in Henry’s insane 395-carry 2015 season at Alabama, he totaled 603 college totes. That sits 231st since 2000. With Henry missing just two games in four NFL seasons, the Titans employ a durable back whose early-career workload strengthens his case to remain productive for a few more seasons.

George and the Chiefs’ Larry Johnson declined after big extensions and 400-carry seasons in the 2000s. Five years ago, the Cowboys created a case for ditching high-volume backs. Dallas let DeMarco Murray walk after his 497-touch 2014 and drafted Elliott a year later. Murray was not the same, but his work with the 2016 and ’17 Titans afforded Henry a part-time role to start his career. This will benefit him in extension talks. Similarities exist between Henry’s 2019 and Murray’s 2014, even though Henry’s playoffs-included touch total is 370. Henry is better and, unlike Murray, his team’s centerpiece player.

To prevent the kind of decline George, Johnson and Murray experienced, the Titans must invest in a rookie capable of spelling Henry. Dion Lewis has failed to do this; releasing the ex-Patriot to save $4M-plus will help the Titans come March.

It would also behoove the Titans to get ahead of the wave that’s coming. The deep 2017 running back draft class is now extension-eligible. Although Christian McCaffrey (Panthers), Alvin Kamara (Saints), Aaron Jones (Packers) and Dalvin Cook (Vikings) possess disparate skill sets from Henry, their extensions would further raise Henry’s floor. The earlier the Titans finalize this agreement the better.

Packing Henry’s guaranteed money into the 2020 and ’21 seasons and arranging a pay-as-you-go structure beyond Henry’s age-27 campaign makes sense. The Jets structured Bell’s $13.25M-per-year pact this way. A four-year, $56M accord -– or in that neighborhood -– would place Henry’s average annual value in line with the top backs and give the Titans a 2022 out. Sam Darnold’s rookie salary helped the Jets on this front, but Tannehill’s situation makes slotting in high Henry cap numbers tougher.

The quarterback franchise tag is expected to settle around $27 million. The Titans’ hopes of keeping their quarterback, running back and right tackle (fellow free agent Jack Conklin) may hinge on finalizing a Tannehill deal before the March 10 franchise tag deadline. Carrying a $27M cap hit into free agency would likely force Tennessee to let Conklin walk. Re-signing Tannehill and tagging Henry (at a tolerable $10.4M) with the intent of a spring or summer extension would be best.

Henry zooming onto the John Riggins-Terrell Davis tier for postseason running back excellence cemented his status as a long-term Titan. Tannehill’s late emergence and Henry’s throwback style have created one of the strangest Super Bowl threats in NFL history. 

How Titans GM Jon Robinson navigates his suddenly high-profile offseason checklist will be both financially fascinating and seminal for a franchise that just two months ago looked locked in low-ceiling irrelevancy.

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