The Tennessee Titans have barely known it this good. In fact a win on Sunday would quite literally see them partying like it’s 1999. It has of course been a team effort but one man has made the headlines with his dominance so far in the playoffs: Derrick Henry.
While resting appeared to be a hindrance for the Ravens early in their disappointing Divisional Round exit, the Titans made the right call with rest. Quirks of the NFL tiebreakers meant that they didn’t need to beat the Saints in Week 16, just for the Steelers to lose. The Steelers lost to the Jets, and then to the Ravens in week 17. That punched the Titans ticket to the postseason. Since then Henry has been the Titans battering ram. But does it offer a clue what they will do with him?
Henry is a free agent in the offseason. Will the Titans resign him or squeeze all the juice out of him. Since week 17, Henry has carried the ball an average of 32 times. The stats sadly suggest for Titans fans that it might be the latter. Over the four years of his rookie deal, Henry carries are as follows:
2016: 110 (backup)
2017: 176 (backup)
That is quite a leap over four years to nearly triple his workload. Admittedly it isn’t the 392 carries that the Cowboys put DeMarco Murray through in 2014 before letting him walk in free agency. Murray touched the ball 449 that season, as he was more involved in the passing game than Henry. Ironically Henry was Murray’s backup for his first two years in Tennessee before the former Cowboy was released.
Is Henry Overworked?
Henry wasn’t leaps and bounds ahead of other rushers in fairness. His 303 carries were nearly matched by Zeke Elliott (301) & Nick Chubb (298). Six backs had 278+ carries. That includes Christian McCaffrey who had 403 touches as he is a dual threat.
What’s more, Henry is productive. He had the most rushing yards with 1540, joint most rushing TDs with Aaron Jones (16), third most rushing first downs (73). Henry also had the fourth highest yards per attempt with 5.1. That was done against stacked boxes, whereas the top three were QB Lamar Jackson, and backup/change of pace backs Raheem Mostert and Gus Edwards. He was the only player to average more than 100 rushing yards a game (102.7, second was Chubb with 93.4).
This is all to say that the Titans have built their gameplan around Henry. Are the Titans will to blow that up and look for a replacement after reaching the Conference Championship?
The Titans’ Options
The tempting thing to do would be to tag Henry. That allows you to keep Henry for another one to two years and continue to use him as a workhorse back. It also removes the risk of Henry having a high cap hit compared to his production in three or four years time. The running back tag is the third cheapest tag at $12.4M), behind only Special Teams ($5.3M) and Tight End ($11M).
The Titans are in a good position with the cap, with around $60M of space for next year (13th most in the league). However, Logan Ryan, Jack Conklin, Wesley Woodyard and Ryan Tannehill are all free agents as soon as their season ends and so the Titans will want to save the franchise tag to use if they have to with any of these. The Titans will also likely be paying at least ten times the $2M that they paid for Ryan Tannehill to pay this season. Deals for Corey Davis and Jonnu Smith will need to be done in the near future too.
Ultimately the ball is in the Titans’ court. They do have a lot of cap space but Jon Robinson has a busy offseason ahead. When it comes to Derrick Henry, the Titans have a choice. However, they will need to commit to it. Either they can view Henry as a short term option. They can tag him and run him into the ground. Or Tennessee can view him as a Titans’ legend and lock him up long term. That requires careful management of such a brutal running back. If the Titans keep getting to third and short or want to run the clock down, can they avoid he temptation to overuse Henry?
Is This Jon Robinson’s Toughest Decision?
It is certainly a good problem to have. The Titans have options and can afford the best back in football. With a shrewd GM like Jon Robinson at the helm, the Titans won’t make a rash decision. It wouldn’t surprise me to see the Titans tag Henry and pay him market rate through his prime before offloading him. As Henry is barely used in the passing game, it’s hard to see him being a bit part player.
For now though, the Titans need to feed Henry the ball and he can get them to Miami.
Image: Erik S Lesser / EPA