Running backs don’t matter, but Derrick Henry does

Despite Derrick Henry’s sustained dominance, there is still a faction of the NFL world that argues against the impact of not only Henry himself, but running backs altogether.

Now, I’m not here to delve into the whole “do running backs matter?” argument because that’s a whole different article in itself, but I did want to discuss whether Henry bucks this overarching devaluation of the position. In this article, I tackle what makes Henry different and then address some of the various arguments against paying Henry.

The idea to write this article actually came from PFF’s NFL Daily Podcast, so I would highly recommend that you go over and take a listen.

What makes Henry different?

Let’s start with what makes Henry different.

Well, a lot.

First, just look at the most basic stats. He’s led the league in rushing for the past two seasons, sitting at 1,532 rushing yards with three games to go in 2020. He also ranks second in yards-per-carry and second overall in yards from scrimmage — among all players, not just running backs.

Next, Henry is a physical anomaly. He’s built like an edge rusher but moves like someone much smaller, on top of being an explosive runner. Despite ranking in the 98th percentile in height (6-3) and weight (238 lbs) for running backs, Henry ran a 4.54-second 40-yard dash. This speed translates to the field, as (according to Next Gen Stats) Henry is one of only two players so far this season to show up twice in the top-20 fastest ball carriers of the year. Henry came in at ninth with a speed of 21.62 MPH.

In addition to his breakaway speed, Henry is elite at breaking tackles. He ranks first in yards-after-contact with 816 yards, second in forced missed tackles with 57 total, and second in yards-after-contact-per-attempt.

This combination of speed and tackle-breaking ability allows Henry to produce explosive, game-changing plays. In fact, he’s not only one of the best explosive playmakers among just running backs, he’s in the elite group among all skill positions.

Henry currently leads the league in runs of 15+ yards with 16 such runs, averaging 29.44 yards per carry on these plays. The next highest is Nick Chubb with only 12 (although to be fair, Chubb did miss a handful of games). This production of explosive plays rivals some of the best deep ball receivers in the NFL.

For example, Justin Jefferson leads the NFL in deep ball receptions with only 14, averaging 33.36 yards per reception on these deep balls. These explosive runs from Henry not only flip the field, but they change the momentum of and even finish games for the Titans.

Finally, what makes Henry truly different is his durability (knock on wood). Through his five-year career and 80 games played, Henry has only missed two due to injury. This is even crazier if you consider that he’s led the league in rushing attempts two years in a row now.

“Henry doesn’t contribute enough in the passing game”

One of Henry’s main criticisms is his lack of contributions to the passing game. Henry is not really able to run routes like some of the league’s best pass-catching backs, and his hands are average at best.

However, this doesn’t mean Henry has no impact on the Titans’ passing attack. The Titans have been able to feed off the threat of Henry’s dangerous ability on the ground by utilizing play-action to perfection.

Ryan Tannehill leads the NFL in passing yards off play action with 1,365 yards, accounting for 44.4% of the Titans’ total passing production. These yards are a by-product of the defense cheating up towards the line of scrimmage to stop Henry, creating wide open passing lanes for the receivers down the field.

Also, I’m not sure why “analysts” are even worried about running backs contributing to the passing game because according to Sharp Football Stats, running backs rank last in pass success rate and yards per attempt among all skill positions. Likewise, why should the Titans throw the ball to Henry when they have Corey Davis and A.J. Brown on the outside?

Let receivers receive and running backs run. The Titans understanding of Henry’s strengths and weaknesses as a player just make him more effective on the field.

“Any other running back could do what Henry has done behind that offensive line”

According to PFF, the Titans’ offensive line has ranked in the top-10 for run blocking in the last four seasons and even ranks first this season. Looking at how well the offensive line has performed, many critics have stated that any competent running back could do what Henry is doing. However, this is simply not true. If we look at the other running backs for the Titans, none have been nearly as efficient as Henry.

As shown in the tables below, Henry has averaged almost a full yard more per carry than any other ballcarrier for the Titans over the last three seasons.

PlayerRushing AttemptsRushing YardsYards per Attempt
Derrick Henry21510594.9
Dion Lewis1555173.3
2018 Titans Rushing Stats
PlayerRushing AttemptsRushing YardsYards per Attempt
Derrick Henry30315405.1
Dion Lewis542093.9
Dalyn Dawkins11262.4
2019 Titans Rushing Stats
PlayerRushing AttemptsRushing YardsYards per Attempt
Derrick Henry29715325.2
Jeremy McNichols472044.3
D’Onta Foreman22954.3
2020 Titans Rushing Stats

The Titans’ offensive line has been good, but Henry acts as a force multiplier. The line gives him good running lanes and Henry maximizes the opportunities.

“Henry is not worth that contract”

This past offseason, Henry was rewarded for his bell-cow status with a four-year, $50 million contract, making him the sixth-highest paid running back in the NFL. Looking at his total production, his efficiency over other options, the number of explosive plays, and his durability, it’s really hard to argue against this contract.

Henry is outperforming all the running backs that are paid more than him in each of those categories. On a statistical basis, Henry gives you more yards and more touchdowns than any non-quarterback offensive player. The Titans paid Henry knowing that 2019 could potentially be his peak performance, and he’s somehow exceeding that production in 2020 with three games still on the schedule.

Further, if you look closely at Henry’s deal, it’s not as steep as it seems. According to Spotrac, Henry will be paid $15 million in 2020 and $25.5 million in 2021, but there’s a potential opt-out of the deal after two years — essentially making this a two-year, $25.5 million deal with only $6 million in dead cap after that. This means that the Titans would get Henry in his prime and could potentially cut bait if there is any significant regression in the later years of his contract. To me, that sounds like a huge win for the Titans.

Conclusion

More so than any other running back, Henry seems to take over games on the ground. In the past two years, you can point to plenty of contests the Titans won on the back of dominant Henry performances. Last year, it was Week 10 against the Chiefs, Week 17 against the Texans, and the two playoff games against the Patriots and Ravens. This year, it was Week 6 against the Texans, Week 12 against the Colts, and Week 14 against the Jaguars. You can’t say that about any other running back in the NFL.

The stats back it up: Henry owns the record for most 200+ yard, two-touchdown games in NFL history with four such performances.

Any arguments against running backs do not apply to Henry because his skillset and situation are just so unique. The entire offense is built around him. This team wants to run the ball and work off of play-action. It’s what the Titans do and they do it well. While it is unique, the Titans have found a formula on offense that works and has made them the number four scoring offense in the NFL so far this season.

Derrick Henry is durable, productive, explosive, and most importantly, he is vital to the success of the Titans. Of course he matters.

Comments

  1. Nice observations and writing.

    Question: do you know what Henry’s efficiency numbers look like as a receiver?
    – yards per catch
    – catches vs. targets
    – targets vs. routes run

    It seems to me that another important point worth making is that when Henry catches the ball in open space, it often yields some pretty healthy yardage results.

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