The game of football is very different today than it was a decade or so ago. If this were 2003, running back Derrick Henry may have been a top-five pick out of college, and after the production we've seen from him over the last few years, he'd be in prime position to cash out in free agency.
The first part didn't happen. When it came to elements of his draft stock that he could control, Henry did basically everything you could have asked from a running back. In terms of individual statistics, he rushed for over 2,200 yards and 28 touchdowns in his final season at Alabama. In terms of awards, he was the Heisman Trophy winner as the catalyst for the Crimson Tide's national championship team in 2015. And in terms of success during the draft process itself, Henry's 130-inch broad jump, 35-inch vertical jump and 4.52 40-yard dash at the combine were nearly off the charts for his weight-adjusted scores at 6-foot-3, 247 pounds.
Henry could not have done more for himself as a prospect, and yet he didn't hear his name called until the 45th pick in the second round of the 2016 draft.
He did not have the immediate output many thought he would have during his first two seasons in the NFL. Through his sophomore season, Henry started just four out of 32 games while rushing and combined for 1,234 yards and 10 touchdowns. It took him almost a year and a half to get his first 100-yard game, but though the overall numbers were low, Henry's yards-per-carry average was above four for each of the first two seasons.
At the end of his third season, Henry really broke out. His 238-yard performance against the Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 14 became the push his career needed. The following week Henry rushed for 170 yards, and the following season he led the NFL with 1,540 rushing yards in the regular season and 466 yards in the postseason -- a playoff record for rushing yards without reaching the Super Bowl.
It appeared King Henry had finally arrived.
Now the reigning NFL rushing champion finds himself without a guaranteed home for 2020. Though the Tennessee Titans built their offense around running the ball with Henry, he remains without a contract as the league gets closer to the free agency opening up.
Here's what that market could look like for Henry.
Where He Wins
Simply put: It is so rare that a man of Henry's size can have as much finesse and speed to their game as he does. He can put his foot in the ground and explode in a straight line to top speeds many defenders wouldn't even think he could reach.
Because of his speed, Henry’s likely to bounce runs to the outside. He can be successful between the tackles, but he is not a total bruiser like one would expect. He likes to run behind some zone concepts and plays that allow him to get to the boundary or just outside of the tackle box. Henry has smooth hands that he uses to redirect and re-balance when stiff-arming opponents as opposed to just imposing his strength against them. He understands that the best yards are the ones yet to come, so he stays up and gets them now rather than on the next run. This kind of mentality is how he combines his size with some fluidity to give him a high yards-per-carry average.
In the passing game, because of his size, Henry is also a naturally reliable pass protector. On top of that, he caught 18 passes this past season for over 200 yards and an 11.2 yards-per-catch average. This rounds out his "franchise back" kind of role.
Henry is different — and this is where his contract value could be as high as any back in the league — because his game is so unique in terms of his athletic gifts and the mentality he has towards toting the ball.
Potential Red Flags
The only real potential red flag with Henry is his carry load. Henry rushed the ball 395 times in his final season at Alabama, and in 2018 and 2019 he accumulated 215 and 303 carries, respectively.
He's can take the hits. It also helps that his running style isn't as brutish as one might think for a player of his size, which is frustrating for some who watch but is also good for his long-term availability.
In the backfield, contracts usually don't pan out because of potential injuries. It's unfair to hold an injury over someone that hasn't even happened yet or may not even happen at all. But running backs take punishment, and Henry, for as big as he is, is no exception to that.
Spotrac gave Henry a market value of $13.8 million heading into free agency. That per-year average would make Henry the third highest-paid back in the NFL behind the Dallas Cowboys’ Ezekiel Elliott and Los Angeles Rams’ Todd Gurley.
Henry was on the Rich Eisen Show during Super Bowl media week and told Eisen that “‘Zeke’s number is the floor."
Elliott is currently the highest-paid running back in the league after signing a six-year, $90-million extension before the beginning of the 2019 season, which included $50 million in guaranteed money.
Accomplishments in mind, if Elliott got that kind of number after leading the league in rushing, Henry could too. In fact, Henry rushed for more yards with more touchdowns and had a higher yards-per-carry average than Elliott did the year before he signed his big deal.
But on the flip side, there is leverage against him in what is happening with running backs around the league. Elliott's value appears to be solidified in the Cowboys' minds, so his status remains. But as for the only other three running backs making over $13 million per season, the Arizona Cardinals are reportedly thinking of moving on from David Johnson, who is making $13 million per season; the Rams are reportedly shopping Gurley, who is making $14.1 million per season, and the Jets just got the worst year out of Le'Veon Bell that he's had since his career took off.
Henry can likely combat all that and say that those guys are old news and he's the "here and now." But the truth is Henry might be lucky to get Elliott numbers, not see them as the floor.
Potential Landing Spots
As stated before, the Titans built their entire offensive identity around Henry and knowing that there has to be a reality in which he can still be in place for them. They are also staring at their quarterback, Ryan Tannehill, entering free agency, which causes Tennessee to think about which might be a bigger priority. For most teams, it would be the quarterback but for the Titans, it might be different.
With Frank Gore and Devin Singletary, the Buffalo Bills have a decent running back room that they have relied on and were able to sustain success with. Josh Allen seems like a quarterback who will need a strong running game to lean on, and with Gore about to be 37 years old, sliding Henry into a large role with Singletary behind him could be a move that takes Buffalo over the top.
With the 9th most cap space in the NFL, the Houston Texans have some money to play with. Carlos Hyde rushed for the first 1,000-yard season of his career, but he is over 30 years old. As for Lamar Miller, he's only 28 but is coming off an ACL injury that cost him his entire 2019 season.
Inserting Henry into an offense with Deshaun Watson at the helm could be a big boost for them.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will likely be in the market for almost all of the free-agent running backs, and there is a chance that Ronald Jones II could be the lone back in Tampa. Though Jones certainly looked better in 2019 than he did in 2018, the question remains whether or not he can be "the guy" in a backfield. My guess would be that the Buccaneers would trust Jones more than the role he would be given if they were to sign a player like Henry. While this is a position of need, Henry specifically might be too rich for them.
However, with the third-most cap space, if Tampa Bay wanted Henry, it could easily be in the conversation.