Stud or Dud? A Diagnosis of Derrick Henry

The last two seasons, Derrick Henry truthers were waiting for a moment to deploy the former Alabama standout and watch him take over the Titans’ backfield for the foreseeable future. In the regular season finale against the Jaguars, and due to a DeMarco Murray MCL tear, those owners finally got their wish.

As the lead back in a 15-10 win against the Jags, Henry rushed for 51 yards on 28 carries and salvaged his fantasy day by taking a screen pass 66 yards to pay dirt. In the following playoff game against the Chiefs, Henry’s stock continued to rise with a 156-yard, one touchdown performance in a huge comeback win. Henry didn’t get many opportunities against the Patriots, as the Titans got away from the running game for most of the contest.

In early 2018, it finally looked like Henry was ready to feast. That was true until Tennessee signed former New England RB Dion Lewis to a 4-year, $20 million-dollar contract in the offseason. Once again, Henry finds himself mired in a timeshare. We all know that timeshare in Florida that you got suckered into was a poor investment, but what about the one here in Tennessee? For redraft and dynasty leagues, what do you make of this bruising third year tailback?

The Case for Derrick Henry

The reason for the Henry excitement is pretty clear. Name another 6’3’’, 247-pound heavyweight who’s in an offense that puts a priority on running the ball. I’ll wait. New Head Coach Mike Vrabel isn’t the only new addition to the coaching staff, as Tennessee brought in Matt LaFleur from Los Angeles to run the offense. You remember what LaFleur did for Todd Gurley last year? While I’m not comparing Gurley to Henry, I like the upside of the Kyle Shanahan disciple as a co-architect of the NFL’s #1 offense from the previous season. LaFleur was instrumental in turning around the Rams offense in a single year, and I’m excited to see his offensive philosophy play out in Nashville. During his time with the Redskins, Falcons, and Rams, LaFleur utilized a zone blocking scheme, and there’s good reason to believe that he’ll employ the same system for Henry, which is a perfect fit to his running style. The universal idea of zone blocking is to let your offensive linemen block an area instead of blocking a defensive opponent. We’re not talking about a mediocre offensive line, either. We’re talking about the fifth ranked O-Line, according to profootballfocus.com. Also, in the last two years in a LaFleur-led offense, a lead back (Freeman, Gurley) put up top-8 rushing numbers. Henry could easily do the same.

Dion Lewis could be a hindrance, and I hate to classify any player as injury prone, but the former Patriot has only played one full season in his career (in 2017) and only appeared in 38 of 80 games from 2011-2016. Henry should have the goal line duties locked down, and only stands to benefit if Lewis misses any games (and history suggests he will). As far as the pair are concerned, the “Quickness and the Thickness” should see more snaps and might replicate the success that Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara saw last season. That’s entirely possible, folks.

At the ripe age of 24 and plenty of tread left on the tires – thanks to Murray and the old Titans’ coaching staff – Henry is obviously a piece you would want to center your offense around. If you trust the current coaching staff, trust that they’ll put Henry in a position to succeed. He might be the best offensive player on the field for Tennessee at any given time. He has the ability, and believe it or not, the speed to go along with it too. According to the NFL’s NextGen stats, Henry was clocked at 21.64 MPH in week 13, which tied for the fifth fastest carry in 2017.

That run was tied with the top speed of Tyreek Hill. Tyreek Hill!! Henry is young and looking to prove himself. He has the offensive scheme tailored to his play style. He was called upon come playoff time, albeit with a different coaching staff, and when the Titans were able to run their game plan, he was featured and used. No reason to believe that won’t continue.

The Case Against Derrick Henry

This might all depend what you take away from the Dion Lewis signing. Is Lewis merely a third down back in this new offense? Or will he earn more playing time? If you take any information away from Lewis last year, understand that while in New England, nearly 93% of Dion Lewis’ snaps came on 1st or 2nd down. Did the Titans spend 5 million dollars a year on Lewis just to utilize him as a 3rd down back? Or will Lewis and Henry trade offensive series, allowing Mike Vrabel to roll with the hot hand? That’s a possible and likely outcome. Don’t forget about Lewis’ efficiency in the red zone, either. Lewis scored on 30% of his attempts (6 of 20) in the red zone, so I’m not convinced that Henry always gets his number called when the Titans are knocking at the door.

Let’s just ignore Lewis for a moment. Now, what’s to say Henry can even carry the load for a full NFL season? With new breakout candidates on the draft board every year, running backs don’t often get multiple chances, and Henry needs to show the Titans and the rest of the league he has leveled up.
In fact, Henry has yet to receive more than 180 carries in a season, he has yet to rush for more than 800 yards, and he has yet to tally more than 5 touchdowns in a season. While the Titans boast a top-5 offensive line with all five returning starters, as of this writing, Jack Conklin is a question mark to start the season, as he is recovering from an ACL tear he sustained in the playoffs. While DeMarco Murray was also roadblock for Henry, the former Heisman trophy winner never seemed to do much with his opportunity when he did get on the field. I’ll concede he did have a few great scoring plays in “garbage time” of several games but fantasy points are created equal, whether they are accumulated in the first minute or the last second of a game.

If you’re in any type of league that gives points per receptions, Henry might not be a right option for you. He’s only caught 24 passes in his career, and likely won’t be targeted out of the backfield. I hardly think LaFleur will telegraph his play calling to only have Mariota target the tailback when Lewis is on the field, but the new OC didn’t have this personnel “problem” in his last two jobs. If LaFleur really wants to be creative and secretive with the playbook while catering to each player’s strengths, I simply don’t trust Henry as a receiving threat or as more than capable in pass protection until I see more of him do it consistently. Not to mention, Lewis has a career average of 8.1 receiving yards per reception and is the obvious choice for passing down work. Am I wrong to assume they don’t want to roll the dice with Henry when they already have a proven commodity in Lewis? A few negative game scripts this season should put Lewis on the field in passing down situations more often. If Henry can’t establish the ground game quickly and efficiently and the Titans get in a hole, can you trust Vrabel to keep the running game a priority?

I predict that LaFleur will make a huge impact on the offense, but I believe it translates more to a bump in wide receiver production and doesn’t impact Henry as much as we think. As far as your upcoming drafts, it’s my opinion that there are better options to choose when Derrick Henry is coming off the board. I have him as the 21st ranked RB, and at his current ADP, I view him as a risk that could pay massive dividends, but I’d rather not plant my flag on a player with so many question marks this early in any draft. Henry will be a Dud for most the season.

Michael Klos
Redraft and Dynasty Specialist
@michaelsklos