NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The Tennessee Titans rode the running game deep into the postseason thanks primarily to the dominance of Derrick Henry. The running back's 211 rushing yards in Tennessee's 35-14 season-ending win over the Houston Texans gave him an NFL-best 1,540 yards on the season. The win also got the Titans into the playoffs.
In postseason wins over the Patriots and Ravens, Henry accounted for 69% of the Titans' scrimmage yards (406 of 585 yards total), according to ESPN Stats & Info.
Henry is an unrestricted free agent. He has made it clear that he wants to stay in Tennessee, but re-signing him won't be cheap. The idea of paying big money to a running back has pros and cons like any other position. Here's what the Titans need to consider:
Henry's role in the offense and with the team
Over the past two seasons, the Titans are 9-0 when Henry gains 100 yards or more. Tennessee also has a 3-0 playoff record when he crosses that plateau. On the flip side, the Titans are 0-2 in the playoffs when Henry doesn't reach 100 yards rushing. It's pretty clear that Henry's success on the ground is the catalyst for the Titans offense.
"It's no secret that we hand the ball to Derrick a lot and he's gaining a lot of yards," quarterback Ryan Tannehill said. "Off of that comes some play action and we can take some deep shots down the field. It puts defenses in tough situations. You have to contend with Derrick being able to make the tough yards inside and breaking long runs."
Coach Mike Vrabel wants the Titans to be a physical football team. He likes having a back like Henry who can wear teams down, which is especially beneficial late in the season. Henry's 182-yard performance against the New England Patriots in the wild-card round and 195-yard masterpiece against the Baltimore Ravens in the divisional round led to back-to-back playoff wins.
The leadership that Henry brings is another factor. His team-first approach to his success mirrors Vrabel's football philosophy.
"I don't care about individual stuff," Henry said after the Titans' Week 17 win over the Texans. "Credit to those guys. All of our teammates. The line is blocking, the tight ends are blocking. The receivers block down the field. It speaks volumes for us as an offense. I credit the coaches and everybody involved in what we do on offense."
Vrabel has mentioned how hard Henry works in practice and that Henry has emerged as someone players look up to in the locker room.
"He’s become a very good leader for this football team," Vrabel said. "When you’re durable, and you perform, and you play hard, it’s easy to be a leader."
Handling the workload
Offensive coordinator Arthur Smith dialed up 30 or more carries for Henry in three of their last four games. Henry became the first player with three consecutive games in which he gained 180 or more rushing yards. He had 386 carries last season, with 303 of those coming in 15 games during the regular season.
Is he built to handle the load again?
"I think Derrick trains and prepares to be able to handle that load," Vrabel said. "He’s very unique -- there’s not that many running backs in the league like Derrick, because there’s not that many players in college that are like Derrick, and by that I just mean he's a bigger tailback [6-foot-3, 247 pounds]. He’s durable and he’s one of the best-conditioned players on our team. When you watch him in April, May and June, that’s how he trains and that’s how he’s built."
When asked about Henry before a Week 14 game, Raiders coach Jon Gruden called Henry a "machine."
Henry was one of three players last season to average at least 5 yards per carry (NFL-best 5.1) while logging at least 200 carries. It's safe to expect some drop-off from his spectacular 2019 season. The bigger question is whether the Titans will wear down Henry over the next two years, rendering him ineffective before his second contract expires.
Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott carried the ball 322 times and gained 1,641 yards as a rookie in 2016. He followed it up with 242 carries in 10 games in 2017 along with back-to-back seasons with more than 300 carries in 2018 and 2019. Elliott didn't have an extreme drop-off despite the extensive carries. Predicting continued success for the 26-year-old back over the next three seasons isn't a stretch.
Conversely, there's always the example of former Kansas City Chiefs running back Larry Johnson, who carried the ball 336 times for 1,750 yards in 2005 and 416 times for 1,789 yards in 2006. Johnson was never the same after those two seasons. A foot injury and ineffectiveness kept him from having any impact. Fortunately for Henry, he doesn't have an extensive injury history and he's entering only his third season as the feature back.
If Henry's not re-signed, what then?
What would the Titans' running back room look like without Henry? Tennessee has only two other backs under contract: Dalyn Dawkins and Dion Lewis. Releasing Lewis would save them $4 million in cap space. The Titans could go after a lower-priced free-agent back such as Jordan Howard and draft a running back to give them a viable one-two punch. Other free-agent options include Damien Williams from the Kansas City Chiefs and Lamar Miller from the Houston Texans.
With the 29th pick in the draft, they should have their pick of backs such as Georgia's D'Andre Swift, Wisconsin's Jonathan Taylor or J.K. Dobbins from Ohio State. If the Titans decide to address the running back position later in the draft, a player such as Clyde Edwards-Helaire could be an option.
What Henry's contract could look like
Henry's deal will likely be most similar to the contract that Bell signed with the New York Jets in terms of average salary and guaranteed money. Like Bell, Henry will be 26 years old when he signs his second contract. Henry will be the best free-agent back on the market and is coming off his best season as a pro.
But if there's one gripe about Henry as compared to the other backs that have recently cashed in on big paydays, it's that he's more of a two-down back. Elliott, Gurley, Bell and Johnson all posed a legitimate threat in the passing game when theirs deals were done. According to ESPN Stats & Info, Henry played on only 24 (13%) of the Titans' 187 third downs last season. Lewis played 150 snaps (80%) on third downs because he gave the Titans a better option as a pass-catcher out of the backfield.
While he has put in plenty of work with running backs coach Tony Dews, Henry still has room for improvement as a receiving option. Henry was able to become somewhat of a threat by way of the screen game, but he needs to do more than that. The Titans staff showed signs of trusting Henry as a route runner last season when they had him line up over the numbers in empty sets, but they rarely threw him the ball.
What could Henry ultimately get? It wouldn't be unreasonable for him to get a four-year deal worth $54 million, with $34.2 million guaranteed. Most of the guaranteed money should come in the first three years of the contract.