On Monday morning, Adam Schefter tweeted that Achilles had fallen. Or, rather, that Derrick Henry had broken his foot and might be out the rest of the season. Sorry for the confusion, but seeing the news certainly felt like a demigod had been taken down.
Throughout his career, Henry has been seemingly invincible at a notoriously punishing position. He’s missed just one game over the last three seasons, and all the while has put up ridiculous numbers. He currently leads the NFL in carries, rushing yards, and rushing touchdowns (had he finished at the top of those categories, it would have been his third-straight season doing so, an NFL record). Henry’s reputation stands above his peers in much the same way that Henry literally stands above his peers. He’s called “Tractorcito” for a reason.
Mark Ingram looks like Derrick Henry’s proud little brother while wearing that letterman jacket pic.twitter.com/Lf50hhVgQT— No Coast Bias (@NoCoastBias) January 12, 2016
But at some point during Sunday’s win over the Colts, Henry suffered what’s thought to be a Jones fracture in his right foot, and now he’ll be out at least six to 10 weeks—potentially the rest of the regular season, with a chance to return for the playoffs.
Sunday’s overtime victory gave the Titans their second win of the season over their division rival, an AFC-leading 6-2 record, and a seemingly insurmountable lead in the AFC South (they have a 97 percent chance to win the division, according to FiveThirtyEight). But without Henry, things are going to change in a big way.
The Titans have already signed Adrian Peterson as one option to replace Henry. Peterson, ironically, is one of only four players in NFL history who have ever logged more rushing yards in a season than Henry did last year. But Peterson is 36 years old, and the Titans aren’t just replacing a running back—they are replacing an identity. So, too, are all the fantasy teams who have been lugged to first or second place by Henry, team-on-my-back style. So what do fantasy managers do without their top performing back? What do the Titans do without their star? And what is Tennessee’s ceiling without him?
First off: There is no replacing Derrick Henry. In this pass-happy era of the NFL, his workload is that of a bygone time. This year, he set the record for most carries in a team’s first eight games of a season. That in itself is wildly impressive, but even more so when you consider it in concert with the rest of his recent production. Since the beginning of 2019, Henry has logged 1,001 carries—304 more than second-place Dalvin Cook. His carries over two and a half years could dwarf what most feature running backs do in four years. And with that historic volume has come historic production.
Henry ran for 2,000 yards last season—becoming just the eighth player ever to do so—and he was flirting with a 2,000-yard pace again this year before his injury (no running back has ever reached 2,000 yards in a season more than once). Over the last three seasons, Henry has had four different games with more than 200 rushing yards—the same amount as the rest of the NFL combined.
But to capture Henry purely in numbers misses the point. He is a player who needs to be seen to be believed. He is the NFL’s biggest, tallest, and sometimes the fastest running back (before Week 8, he had recorded the fastest speed of any ball carrier this season). His stiff arm alone is capable of tossing defenders into alternate universes.
Henry also somehow gets better as time goes on. His yards per carry is higher in the fourth quarter (5.2) than in the first (3.3). His yards-per-carry figure is a full yard higher in January (6.4) than it is in December (5.5), and it’s higher in December than it is in September (4.0). In each of the first six years of Henry’s career, his carries, yards, and rushing touchdowns have plateaued or gone up, but never gone down. The Titans are the only team you’ll see operate a four-minute offense for a late comeback around running the ball, and have it be the smart thing to do.
How could a player consistently be better late in games, late in the season, late in their career? My colleague Danny Kelly jokes that Henry wears the Black Panther suit that absorbs the energy of attackers and uses it against them. But the real answer is probably that late in the game and the season, defenders really don’t want to put their body in front of Derrick Henry. Now the Titans have to figure out how to replace that.
They’ve started by signing Adrian Peterson, who has been with Detroit, Washington, New Orleans, and Arizona over the last four years as he’s tried to surpass Emmitt Smith as the NFL’s all-time leading rusher (he’s 3,535 yards shy). Peterson managed 156 carries for 604 yards last season in Detroit, and he looked surprisingly spry given his age. He’s a must-add fantasy pickup as a flex fill-in—and has the potential to be slightly better than that. Even the possibility that Peterson could pick up the largest chunk of Henry’s workload makes him worth the flier.
Beyond Peterson, the Titans’ running backs are weak. Darrynton Evans is out for the season, leaving Tennessee with pass-catching back Jeremy McNichols and two practice-squad players, Dontrell Hilliard (signed last week) and Mekhi Sargent (an undrafted rookie). Henry basically put up the same rushing stats in three games in September as McNichols, Hilliard, and Sargent have in their careers combined.
McNichols may carve himself out a solid role as a pass-catcher. He has the most value in PPR formats, and if Julio Jones—who has already missed three games with a hamstring injury—continues to miss time, there’s a chance McNichols could have games in which he is the de facto no. 2 receiver behind A.J. Brown. McNichols isn’t as strong of an add as Peterson, though he might have the largest role on Sunday against the Rams as Peterson works his way into the offense. Regardless, McNichols is worth a look because any back who could pick up the bulk of the work in this rushing game is worth the add. Even Sargent, the undrafted rookie, could be worth a flier in (much) deeper leagues.
With all that speculation, though, we still don’t know what this offense will be without Henry. Head coach Mike Vrabel said the Titans will continue to use their preexisting plan, while adding in some adjustments to make up for some of the lack of production. But their rushing game certainly won’t be the same.
Even when the defense knew Henry was getting the ball, he still performed. Despite seeing the most eight-man boxes in the league, he was among the tops in the NFL in rushing yards over expectation—and it’s rare to lead an efficiency stat when you’re also lapping everyone else in volume. Henry is the straw that stirs the drink in Tennessee. But now defenses may not need to stack eight men in the box. And if they shift those extra men toward Brown, it will be concerning. As PFF’s Nathan Jahnke noted on Monday, Brown has the most receiving yards in the league against eight-man boxes over the last two seasons—which makes perfect sense, since the Titans were seeing them all the time. Tennessee is going to have to lean on Brown regardless of what the defense throws his way. And while his target and receiving production could go up, his efficiency may also go down.
Leaning on Brown will also serve to highlight the lack of depth Tennessee has at receiver. Jones is great, but when he’s out of the lineup, the players behind him are Nick Westbrook-Ikhine, Chester Rogers, and Josh Reynolds. The Titans were a top-heavy team with Brown, Jones, and Henry; now Tennessee might have a few weeks where it’s just Brown, a 36-year-old Peterson, and a motley crew of pass-catchers.
The Titans are currently the no. 1 seed in the AFC, though it’s hard to see them staying there with this news. If any team is going to struggle without its starting running back, it is Tennessee. Their three-game lead in the AFC South means their playoff hopes are still safe. All they have to do to win the division is win three of their final nine games and hope the Colts don’t go 7-2 the rest of the season.
But the playoffs are when the Titans need Henry the most. The team has a “grind opponents into dust” ethos, and in the past, its postseason strategy has been to drag teams down into the muck and beat them with experience. Tennessee’s best chance for a postseason run is for Henry to be able to return at the tail end of his six-to-10-week timeline. If he is really Tennessee’s Achilles, the Titans’ best hope is for him to return in the playoffs as a Trojan Tractorcito.