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Is Derrick Henry’s New Contract a Win-Win for Him and the Titans?

Big deals for running backs have an underwhelming history, but the deal Henry and Tennessee struck on Wednesday could have both enough stability for the Pro Bowl back and enough flexibility for the team

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Even in the offseason, the Titans are full of surprises. Less than 24 hours after ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported that it seemed unlikely Tennessee and star running back Derrick Henry would agree on a long-term deal, the two sides reached terms on a four-year, $50 million contract that includes $25.5 million in guarantees. And that’s a victory for both parties involved, despite recent history suggesting that giving big-money extensions to high-volume tailbacks is ill advised.

Before the start of free agency in March, Tennessee handed quarterback Ryan Tannehill a four-year, $118 million deal and slapped a $10.3 million franchise tag on Henry. It appeared somewhat puzzling—as the Titans miraculously advanced to the AFC Championship Game last year, it was Henry’s late-season surge that propelled them; not Tannehill’s arm, as the quarterback was responsible for just 15 completions between Tennessee’s wild-card and divisional-round wins. Henry rushed for 377 yards and one touchdown on 64 carries (5.9 yards per tote) in that same span. Maybe in some alternate universe where Lamar Jackson doesn’t exist, Henry’s six-game stretch at the end of the regular season—in which he rushed for 896 yards and 10 touchdowns on 6.5 yards per carry—would have even been enough to earn him at least an MVP vote.

Henry’s 2019 production—he led the league in rushing yards (1,540), rushing touchdowns (16, tied with Aaron Jones), and yards after contact (4.2)—didn’t guarantee a future rich deal. Running backs are a devalued position, and recent big deals for them have backfired on teams. The Rams signed former first-round pick Todd Gurley to a four-year, $57.5 million extension ($45 million guaranteed) then cut him less than a year after. He signed a one-year prove-it deal with the Falcons this offseason. Gurley replaced Devonta Freeman, Atlanta’s former starter who previously agreed to a four-year, $41.3 million extension in 2017. The Falcons cut Freeman this offseason, two years into the deal, and he’s since turned down offers, cut ties with his agent, and remains a free agent. The Cardinals signed David Johnson to a three-year, $39 million extension in 2018, and traded him to the Texans this offseason just two years in.

Other running backs have had to forcefully push for their earnings. Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell sat out the entire 2018 season before agreeing to a four-year, $52.5 million deal with the Jets. Last season, former Chargers running back Melvin Gordon held out for four games in hopes of a new deal, experienced a statistical dropoff upon returning midseason, then signed a two-year, $16 million deal with the Broncos this offseason. Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott held out of training camp before receiving a four-year, $90 million extension last season. The only other recent big-money running back contract of note is that of Christian McCaffrey, who signed a four-year, $64 million extension earlier this offseason with the Panthers. But his $16 million average annual value was only granted after an otherworldly season in which he appeared on a whopping 93.4 percent of Carolina’s offensive snaps. He’s also broken the record for running back receptions in a single year in each of the past two seasons. Henry is a much different player than McCaffrey. His 18 receptions for 206 yards and two receiving touchdowns last season doesn’t come close to McCaffrey’s 116 receptions for 1,005 yards and four touchdowns.

Is there a way for this deal to work out better, for both the Titans and Henry, than so many other recent running back contracts? Henry’s pact will reportedly include two years in guarantees. In practical guarantees, that’s $25 million, since the AAV of the deal amounts to $12.5 million (fifth among running backs, according to Over the Cap). Ultimately, it’s a good haul for a running back. It also allows for Tennessee to potentially move on from Henry, who’s entering his age-26 season, ahead of his age-29 season. Henry, who’s 6-foot-3 and 247 pounds, has generated production to this point in his career similar to that of fellow 220-pound-plus running backs Ricky Williams, DeMarco Murray, Larry Johnson, and Gerald Riggs. As The Athletic’s Mike Sando has noted, each of those players drastically declined by their seventh season; only one of those players (Williams) amassed more than 700 yards in their seventh pro year. The Titans, however, will be able to focus on what Henry can do for them in the short term.

Tennessee’s plan is to run it back with the same offensive core and system that helped them reach the AFC Championship Game last season. The Ringer’s Robert Mays explained that the Titans offense could once again revolve around its rushing attack and utilize it to set up play-action. Bringing Henry back and ensuring he’s around for the next few years enables Tennessee to continue to build around that gameplan without mortgaging its future to do so. It also keeps Henry from having a competitive market in what’s projected to be a robust running back free-agent class in 2021. Ultimately, it’s a win-win for both sides.