After back-to-back rushing titles, should the Titans ease Derrick Henry’s workload in 2021?

Derrick Henry has been an absolute force for the Tennessee Titans ever since he began receiving a full dose of carries since the 2018 season. He’s embraced Mike Vrabel’s run first mindset, taken it to the next level, and has turned into a bona fide NFL star.

Not only that, his play alone has given the Titans’ organization an extended second look from the national media, a look that’s eluded this team for a long while.

But with this success, along with Vrabel’s mission to physically dominate opponents week after week, comes a price that could truly unveil its effects sooner rather than later.

Since 2017, Henry has carried the football 1,072 times.

For an NFL running back, that amount of mileage and punishment towards the body is nothing more than an unwritten death sentence. All those yards that were ran, all those hits taken from hard hitting linebackers and defensive linemen, they can add up pretty quickly. They lead to more nagging injuries, more hits to a player’s athleticism, and almost everything else in between when it comes to negative consequences for a running back. It’s why we’ve seen teams across the league adopt a “buy low” strategy when it comes to investing in the running back position.

I mean who wouldn’t?

It’s way easier to put your faith in a younger, cheaper option at the position than a potentially highly paid, declining proven commodity. It’s nothing personal, it’s just good business.

In Henry’s case, he already got paid and even outperformed his contract extension the first season under his new deal. But with multiple 300 carry seasons under his belt, along with the added mileage from his days in high school and college, a couple of questions continue to pop into my head whenever I begin to examine the future outlook for this football team.

How long can Henry keep up this level of dominance without showing any signs of slowing down? Also, how will the team handle the workload of their star back during a self proclaimed Super Bowl window?

They’re both questions we have to think about as long as this team has its sights set on consistent success. While we don’t know the answer to that first question since the norm in terms of decline haven’t really applied to Henry so far, we have a bit more clarity for the all important second question.

For that clarity, we can jump back to last season and take into account what Mike Vrabel did to manage Henry’s workload during the final stretch of the Titans’ AFC South title push.

During his run towards 2,000 rushing yards for the season in 2020, Henry was often taken out of games when the the opportunity presented itself. It was a method used by Vrabel to conserve Henry as much as possible during a series of games when the team really needed him at his best, both physically and mentally. For any back, less punishment on the body is extremely beneficial, both in the short term and the long term future as well.

But when you’re player that holds such importance to an offense like Henry does, something as trivial as extra rest can’t be easily brought to the table.

Especially when the Titans are coming off an off-season in which the offense saw big departures in Jonnu Smith and Corey Davis and considering how difficult their schedule looks for this upcoming season.

That’s what’ll make Henry’s rest situation so interesting to monitor moving forward.

Could the team move towards a more pass-friendly approach because of the additions made at wide receiver and the benefits that a rested Henry could provide in the playoffs? Or will they continue to ride Henry and respond when necessary like they did last season?

Both scenarios have their pros and cons, which is why finding a concrete solution looks extremely difficult on paper.

This is a fascinating situation to think about, one I’m sure Mike Vrabel and Todd Downing will be monitoring week after week once the 2021 season kicks off.

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