A 2,000-yard season for Derrick Henry is possible but may not align with Titans team goals

Derrick Henry’s most recent masterpiece — a 178-yard, three touchdown romp over the Colts on Sunday — brought his season rushing total 1,257 yards. He’s currently 127 yards clear of Dalvin Cook in his defense of the NFL rushing title and with a slate of games against sub-par run defenses left to play, he’s raising speculation that he might have a chance to produce just the eighth 2,000-yard season in NFL history.

Henry needs 743 yards over the Titans final five games to get there, which computes to an average of 148.6 yards per game. In his final five games of the 2018 season he rushed for 625 yards. In the last five games that he played in 2019 (he sat out the Saints game, so this number includes his performance against Jacksonville in Week 12) he put up 708 yards. It’s also fair to point out that Henry was clearly less than 100% for most of the closing stretch of 2019 as he nursed a hamstring injury. So while 743 is a big number, it’s not totally out of the question based on his recent late-season performances.

Among the Titans five remaining opponents, the toughest run defense — according to Football Outsiders DVOA metric — is the Browns, who check-in as the 20th best run defense in the league by their estimation. Detroit (23rd), Green Bay (24th), Jacksonville (26th), and Houston (27th) are all among the bottom ten in the league against the run. That slate should be quite the relief for a back that has continued to put up pretty strong numbers while playing five games against top ten run defenses over the past six contests (Steelers are 3rd, Ravens 4th, Bears 5th, and Colts 9th).

Henry joining Chris Johnson in the 2K Club and making the Titans the only franchise in the NFL with multiple 2,000-yard rushers would be a fun story and a fantastic reward for a guy who has become a fan favorite. Hell, it might even bring him into the MVP discussion, though I still struggle to believe that a non-quarterback will win that award again.

However, as much fun as it would be to see Henry earn that distinction, I’m not sure that the team will be as eager to chase that dream. Over the past two seasons, Henry has averaged 6.05 yards per carry in the month of December (also known as D-Henber). That means that if he maintains his incredible efficiency, he’ll need another 123 carries (roughly 25 carries per game) to reach that magic 2,000-yard number.

That’s not an abnormal workload for Henry (he’s averaging 23.3 carries per game right now), but getting the big fella some rest down the stretch could be beneficial. Last year, we saw a hamstring issue pop up, but after playing through it for a couple games, Henry got a week off in Week 16. His next three games after that break saw him go for 211, 182, and 195.

With the 1-seed out of the question for the Titans barring a Christmas collapse from both the Steelers and Chiefs, getting themselves into a spot where they could afford to rest Henry and other key starters in Week 17 could be greatly beneficial to them in the postseason, even if that means Henry doesn’t reach 2,000 yards.

If Tennessee takes care of business over the next few weeks, it’s not hard to imagine a scenario where the Titans enter Week 17 with the 3-seed locked up. Let’s say Tennessee is locked into their playoff position and Henry is just 150 yards from 2,000. What do you do if you’re Mike Vrabel and the Titans brass? Do you give your team captain a chance to chase history? Or do you leave him in Nashville with orders to spend the week getting treatment and resetting his body for a playoff game?

I think you have to make the hard decision to leave him at home. Breaking the 2,000-yard barrier is certainly a huge deal and would be a mark of honor for both the franchise and the franchise’s most recognizable star, but making another deep playoff run is the priority and a refreshed Henry gives the Titans a better chance at making that happen.

There is one other factor that could influence Henry’s usage over the final month of the season: rookie running back Darrynton Evans. Evans has appeared in just two games this season — a 3-carry, 9-yard performance in Minnesota and a 2-carry, 12-yard showing against the Bills — due to a hamstring injury that he suffered during training camp and then reaggravated after returning.

Evans was designated for return from IR on November 16th, making the end of his 21-day window to be activated Monday, December 7th. He’s been practicing with the team for the last two weeks and it seems likely that he makes his way back onto the 53-man roster within the next few days. While he’s been away Jeremy McNichols and D’Onta Foreman have both carved out roles for themselves and the Titans also have running back Senorise Perry on the roster for special teams purposes, so it’ll be interesting to see how that group sorts out, but my guess is Foreman is the one who loses his spot.

It’s been a while since we’ve seen Evans, but there is still a quote from Peter King about Evans that sticks out to me from his visit to Titans training camp:

Evans, the 93rd pick in the 2020 draft, could be one of the most interesting rookies in the NFL this year. As someone close to the Titans told me the other day: “Not ‘could be.’ It’s ‘will be.’ Darrynton Evans has a chance to be a poor man’s Alvin Kamara.” After the failed Dion Lewis experiment as an all-purpose back, the Titans hope that Evans is the changeup back not to take touches away from Derrick Henry (20.1 touches per game in the regular season) but to be used all over the formation. Like Kamara. In a Smith game plan, Evans could be dangerous.

Peter King, NBCSports.com

After spending some time at practice and talking to many members of the Titans organization, King left with the impression that Evans was going to be a big part of the Tennessee offense. Injuries have derailed that vision and there is no guarantee that the Titans will bend their offensive approach to carve out a role for Evans after seemingly finding their groove in recent weeks, but if you’re looking for an X-factor down the stretch, Evans is a good place to start.

If Arthur Smith and the Titans offensive staff want their third-round pick to be a factor in the playoffs, they’ll need to start working him into the mix over the next five weeks. Evans taking a little bit of the load off of Henry, especially in situations like last week where Tennessee find itself up big in the second half, would be a positive development in multiple ways.

We will see if Evans is able to contribute anything for the Titans in 2020, but either way, I think it’s in Mike Vrabel’s best interest to find ways to get Henry a little rest before the playoffs begin, even if that means sacrificing a potential 2,000-yard season.

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