The Tennessee Titans made a collective decision to essentially run it back with their offensive core from 2019. It’s a choice that’s hard to argue. The Titans of last year put together an astounding run to the AFC Championship after Ryan Tannehill took over at quarterback for the two-win outfit in Week 7. That core was not just a big reason why ... they were the reason.
Tannehill, breakout rookie receiver A.J. Brown and a re-energized Derrick Henry were the three catalysts behind the team’s ascension on offense. Two of those three, however, presented the organization with contract-related quagmires to navigate.
With both Tannehill and Henry set to hit free agency in March, the Titans acted swiftly to assure neither played football anywhere else in 2020. Tennessee invested in Tannehill via a four-year, $118 million contract, showing they understood positional value and seeing his 2019 career rebirth as reality and not a fluke. Based on the possible “out” in the deal, the team tied themselves to the former Dolphins’ flameout through the 2022 season, at least.
For Henry, it looked like things might be more complicated. The team hit the NFL’s leading rusher with the franchise tag. While it appeared he might be on a more year-to-year basis with the club heading into last week, Tennessee shifted the conversation. With the franchise tag extensions deadline closing in, Henry inked a four-year deal averaging $12.5 million per season. Absorbing the dead money on the contract won’t become tenable until after the 2021 season.
So the core of this operation will reprise their roles from 2019. Tannehill is back on a multi-year deal to be the starting quarterback. Brown is on his rookie deal and quickly rising up the ranks of NFL wide receivers. Henry is entrenched as the team’s feature back.
However, even if he was rightly rewarded for his play last season and not asked to go it year-to-year, Henry remains the most interesting figure on this team. Tannehill starting was clearly the difference in transforming last year’s Titans. But it was Derrick Henry who became the identity and figurehead for Tennessee toward the last few months of the season.
With a $12.5 million annual salary, Henry’s deal didn’t reset the running back market like Christian McCaffrey ($16 million) did earlier this offseason. He didn’t even clear Ezekiel Elliott’s $15 million from last preseason. Checking in at just fifth in terms of salary per year and eighth in total guarantees ($25.5 million), you could almost call this deal a compromise between team and player. And especially given that the team invested in their quarterback alongside Henry, they aren’t making the same mistake other franchises have with running back deals.
Nevertheless, Henry will still find himself in the national spotlight as the Titans look to buck the trend of teams who have paid big money to their star running back, only to regret it almost right away.
Can Derrick Henry break the chain of regretful RB contracts?
Todd Gurley and David Johnson are on new teams after signing monster contracts following dominant starts to their career. The Jets hated themselves for signing Le’Veon Bell almost before the ink was dry. Dallas might not outright regret signing Ezekiel Elliott to that contract last year but there’s almost no denying they’d be in a much better place with Dak Prescott had they signed their quarterback’s deal first. The Titans don’t want to be one of those teams looking back with regret on their decision to pay Henry come end of the season.
Fantasy managers are also asking Derrick Henry to be something of a trend bucker. To this point in his NFL career, no coaching staff has seen fit to use him as a key passing-game element. Henry’s 24 targets and 18 catches from 2019 were both career highs. That’s wild.
History would tell us that being a dominant asset needs far more passing game involvement than that. Over the last four years, the fantasy RB8 has averaged just over 251 PPR fantasy points per game. That’s already three spots below Henry’s Yahoo ADP. Still, just 11 running backs out of the 301 to have cleared 250 PPR fantasy points since the merger recorded fewer than 20 catches.
Only two have come since 2010: Henry’s 2019 and Alfred Morris in 2012.
Even just getting closer to 30-35 catches would be one hell of a boost for Henry’s floor. But it seems foolish to hope for something that hasn’t even come close to happening through four NFL seasons.
Dion Lewis’ departure does leave behind a passing game role to be filled in the backfield. The veteran was never a big factor in 2019, playing more than 30 snaps just three times all season. Yet, it’s important to look at the context of those games: All three were losses.
The Titans were the most run-heavy team in the league last year (63 percent) when leading by three or more points. While the Titans will certainly be a good team again this year, they’re unlikely to be involved in as many positive game scripts again. That alone will send a few more catches Henry’s way. Even if it came at the sacrifice of a handful of carries, we can live with that in fake football as targets have much more value than rush attempts. On the other hand, rookie Darrynton Evans could sneak off with some catches. That is not a lock though, as Evans snared just 39 catches over three years at Appalachian State.
Henry could easily lead the league in rushing yards once again and will push for the most carries in 2020. That said, unless his receiving workload changes, it wouldn’t be surprising to see backs with a more complete pass-catching resume pass him up in end-of-year scoring. He could easily finish at RB9 to 10, despite his top-five ADP.
In that scenario, Henry will likely have done enough for the Titans to feel good about their investment in their star back. He’d be one of the more productive backs in the league. He presents unique challenges, far more than the typical-size back. That won’t change next year or at any point until he starts to significantly lose the speed end of his freaky size/speed combination.
Tennessee can talk themselves into Derrick Henry being an outlier when compared to the other backs who have been paid of late because, simply put, he already is a physical outlier.
The Titans took the safe route with Henry; extend the back you know is great and don’t ruffle locker room feathers by not rewarding a well-liked and crucial player. Now they’ll have to count on the other pieces of that “run it back” core to keep pace. Tannehill needs to stay stable. A.J. Brown needs to continue to play like a star-level receiver. Yet, because of the recent discussion around running back value, much of the spotlight will be on Henry as he tries to buck history at the position.