Why Tennessee Titans might be wise to explore potential successors to Derrick Henry

The Tennessee Titans would be wise to begin looking for successors to Ryan Tannehill in this month's NFL draft. Not for next season, necessarily, but for a few seasons down the road.

Which brings up a question: Should they be doing the same for Derrick Henry?

The superstar running back, the focal point of the Titans’ offense, had the first major injury of his NFL career in 2021. He missed the last nine games of the regular season with a Jones fracture in his right foot, a break on the fifth metatarsal bone. With the shelf life of NFL running backs typically short, Henry’s first sign of vulnerability could be enough of a reason for Tennessee to start thinking about his eventual replacement.

Asked whether it’s time to explore successors for the 28-year-old Henry, general manager Jon Robinson spoke more generally about his roster-building strategy.

“I think given my history in the league and going through seasons where players for whatever reason aren’t available – they get injured or something – you’re going to need good football players,” Robinson said at the NFL’s annual meeting earlier this week. “You’re going to need as many good football players at every position as possible. So, we don’t go into a draft scouting this particular position or that particular position because we may need that position when looking at the depth chart.”

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The Titans may not need to invest high in the draft on a running back. There was close to no difference in Tennessee’s run game success with and without Henry last season. The Titans averaged 147.6 rushing yards per game in eight games with him last season and 135.8 rushing yards per game in the nine games without him. D’Onta Foreman and Dontrell Hilliard, signed off the street midseason, led the way. The fact Tennessee didn’t need to jerk the wheel on its identity without Henry spoke to the effectiveness of the scheme and run blocking of the offensive line.

But Foreman is also the primary reason the run game stayed afloat, and he signed with the Panthers in free agency. He had 133 carries for 566 yards and three touchdowns in nine games last season, including three 100-yard rushing games. He was the player who most closely represented the bruising running style the team lost with Henry out of the lineup.

Outside of Henry, Tennessee’s running back room consists of Dontrell Hilliard, Trenton Cannon and Jordan Wilkins. Hilliard had 56 carries for 350 yards and two touchdowns on a team-leading 6.3 yards per carry. Cannon, primarily a kick-return specialist, has 150 rushing yards over four NFL seasons. Wilkins, also more of a special teams contributor, had three straight 300-yard rushing seasons with the Colts from 2018-20 but didn’t record a stat in his lone offensive snap last season.

Could Henry be on the decline?

The Tennessean examined the rise and fall of the seven other players in NFL history to rush for 2,000 yards in a single season: Terrell Davis, Eric Dickerson, Chris Johnson, Jamal Lewis, Adrian Peterson, Barry Sanders and O.J. Simpson.

Including the playoffs, here's how many carries and touches (carries and receptions) each of the seven accumulated from the beginning of their careers through their final 1,000-yard rushing season:

  • Barry Sanders: 3,153 carries; 3,526 touches (through 10 seasons)

  • Adrian Peterson: 3,097 carries; 3,386 touches (through 12 seasons)

  • Eric Dickerson: 2,881 carries; 3,120 touches (through seven seasons)

  • Jamal Lewis: 2,529 carries; 2,752 touches (through nine seasons)

  • O.J. Simpson: 2,012 carries; 2,174 touches (through eight seasons)

  • Chris Johnson: 1,753 carries; 2,026 touches (through six seasons)

  • Terrell Davis: 1,547 carries; 1,718 touches (through four seasons)

The seven averaged 2,424.5 carries and 2,671.7 touches through their last 1,000-yard rushing season. Henry has recorded 1,557 carries and 1,664 touches through six seasons. By those reference points, albeit limited in scope, suggest Henry, entering his seventh season, could still be years away from a decline.

In 2019 and 2020, Henry’s last two full seasons (including playoffs), he averaged 391 carries and 413.5 touches per year. At that rate, he wouldn’t pass the aforementioned averages until 2024. Henry is currently under contract through 2023.

After an injury-shortened season, Tennessee could err on the side of caution with Henry and spell him more often than previous seasons, extending his longevity. Henry is also built different from others. At 6-foot-3 and 247 pounds, he’s bigger than the seven other running backs in NFL history to have rushed for 2,000 yards, suggesting he’s more equipped to take the beating for longer.

Ultimately, it’s impossible to project Henry’s health might be moving forward. With his foot healed and a full offseason, maybe we’ll see Henry of old in 2022. Or maybe the foot injury was the first sign of his body starting to break down.

The Titans last drafted a running back early in 2020, selecting Darrynton Evans in the third round. But he was released in March after two injury-shortened seasons.

“You’re going to need every position at some point,” Robinson said this week. “So we evaluate all of those guys and try to make a decision when the value of the player is worth taking given where we’re at in the draft. You never know when you’re going to need that player.”

Ben Arthur covers the Tennessee Titans for The USA TODAY Network. Contact him at and follow him on Twitter at @benyarthur.

This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Time for Tennessee Titans to explore successors to Derrick Henry?