Derrick Henry bucks NFL's pass-heavy trend, but other RBs will need versatility for big payday

Terez Paylor
·Senior NFL writer
·6 min read

You’d have to search far and wide to find a better match between a running back and his organization than Derrick Henry and the Tennessee Titans.

The Titans are committed to smash-mouth football, even in today’s chuck-it-around era. Henry is an imposing 6-foot-3, 250-pound freight train of a man with breakaway speed and a stiff arm from hell. He is the game’s premier big back, a worthy successor to Eddie George and Earl Campbell, famed power backs in the organization’s past.

For all the talk about the ongoing devaluing of the running back position in the NFL, in retrospect perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised the Titans locked him up long-term Wednesday.

The Titans didn’t let Henry play on the $10.2 million franchise tag in 2020 and risk alienating the most important player on a team that shocked the world after making it to the AFC championship game in January. Instead, the two sides struck a four-year contract worth a reported $50 million, with $25.5 million guaranteed.

Derrick Henry got the rare long-term deal for a running back ahead of a potentially COVID-threatened NFL season. (Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)
Derrick Henry got the rare long-term deal for a running back ahead of a potentially COVID-threatened NFL season. (Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)

NFL’s salary cap uncertainty

Although some were quick to deride the deal, accurately citing that many of the league’s best and smartest teams eschew paying running backs big money, it’s not hard to see why either side agreed to it.

For Henry, it’s obvious. With COVID-19 raging, there is a tremendous uncertainty in NFL circles about the 2021 salary cap and how much lower it could be if (and when) league revenues plummet this year. We’re talking millions of dollars here folks, perhaps even far beyond the widely projected $20 million to $30 million drop, one front-office source recently noted to Yahoo Sports.

That means precious few players stand to get tremendously paid next offseason, and those who do hit the market might end up having to take short-term, under-market deals.

The free agent running back class of 2021 will be a loaded buyer’s market, scheduled to include Pro Bowl talents like Joe Mixon, Alvin Kamara, Aaron Jones, Dalvin Cook, James Conner and Phillip Lindsay. There will also be an equally deep draft class at the position. All of this makes Henry wise to take a little more guaranteed money ($25.5 million) than he’d earn on two more years of the franchise tag (roughly $23 million).

“If you’re a guy like Derrick Henry and you’re a running back, lock yourself in — get as much money as you can now,” one front-office evaluator told Yahoo Sports on Wednesday. “You can get hurt … you could suck … your line could suck … you just don’t know.”

Titans hope 2019 success will continue

The Titans bet on Henry at that price, and in doing so, they locked up a man who rushed for 1,540 yards, scored 18 touchdowns last season and is just entering his physical prime.

Additionally, paying Henry, the primary focus of defenses, is also a way of assuring that the same set of circumstances that allowed quarterback Ryan Tannehill to thrive in 2019 remain in place for the future. And after the Titans handed Tannehill, a castoff from Miami before last season, $91 million in total guarantees this offseason, that makes sense, too.

While big backs traditionally age poorly, Henry, who turned 26 in January, should be outstanding for at least three more seasons, as running backs typically fall off around age 29. That means the Titans could cut him at that age with two years left on his deal, thus creating a bunch of salary-cap space. It’s a dirty game, but hey, that’s how it works.

Versatility matters at RB

Finally, there’s also this to consider: In a vacuum, the Titans are getting value in the deal. Henry’s average annual salary of $12.5 million ranks fifth among his position in the NFL, which isn’t commensurate with how reliant their offense is on his skills. Again, life is about leverage, and running backs in today’s pass-heavy, COVID-threatened NFL don’t have much.

To that degree, it’s tempting to wonder whether Henry’s deal will be an indicator of what kind of contracts other star running backs who will be due extensions soon can hammer out with their respective clubs.

Interestingly enough, two NFL evaluators reached for this column thought that two backs in particular who should soon be up for new contacts — the New Orleans Saints’ Kamara and New York Giants’ Saquon Barkley — won’t be affected by Henry’s deal.

“They’d probably get paid more [than him] anyway,” one of the evaluators noted. “Kamara is lethal in the passing game. Saquon is an all-around back.”

Don’t underestimate the importance of that versatility. While Henry caught a grand total of 18 balls last year, Barkley averaged 71 receptions the past two seasons, while Kamara averaged 81.

Today’s NFL is about throwing the rock, and multiple evaluators noted that teams feel much more comfortable paying big money to running backs they can feature in the pass game as “weapons.”

That’s why Dallas gave Ezekiel Elliott (77 receptions in 2018) a monster contract worth $50 million guaranteed last September. That’s why Carolina lavished Christian McCaffrey (116 receptions in 2019) with a contract worth $36.3 million guaranteed in April. Heck, that’s even why the New York Jets rewarded Le’Veon Bell with a rich deal worth $35 million guaranteed after an 85-catch campaign in 2017.

So yes, that’s the defining lesson that every NFL running back should take from the Henry deal. Even if you’re a one-of-one, tight end-sized running back with sprinter speed like the Titans’ star, if you want to get the big, big money in this league as a runner, you better be a dangerous pass catcher like McCaffrey, or at least a prolific and productive one, like Bell.

Given the uncertain status of the 2021 salary cap, and the glut of capable, productive running backs who are expected to be available next spring, the next big payday likely depends on it.

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