NASHVILLE, Tenn. — One objective became clear for the Tennessee Titans during their surprise run to the AFC Championship Game last season: Make running back Derrick Henry the focal point of their offense. Henry’s 446 rushing yards in three playoff games were the sixth-highest postseason total by one player, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
The Titans cashed in on big seasons from Henry, quarterback Ryan Tannehill and rookie receiver A.J. Brown last season. Now they have those three cornerstone pieces in place for the long term after signing Henry to a four-year deal worth $50 million, with $25.5 million guaranteed, on Wednesday. The Titans appear committed to their 2019 formula for the foreseeable future.
The Titans were willing to make a large financial commitment to Henry because of his unique skill set. It’s rare for a back to possess Henry’s blend of size and speed. At 247 pounds, Henry was clocked running as fast as 21.27 mph last season, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. And he already has shown how his success can translate to team success in the postseason.
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Since 2017, the Titans are 0-2 in playoff games when Henry fails to reach 100 rushing yards. They are 3-0 when he passes the century mark. Henry has 13 100-yard games in his career, and the Titans are 13-0 in those games, per research by ESPN Stats & Information.
Tannehill, who signed a four-year, $118 million contract in March, has benefited from Henry’s talent. He opens up the passing game for Tannehill simply by being on the field.
“We’re handing the ball off to Derrick and he gains a lot of yards. Off of that comes some play-action and shots down the field,” Tannehill said before the Titans’ Week 14 win over the Raiders. “It puts defenses in tough situations. They have to contend with Derrick making the tough yards inside and breaking long runs. Then we have the speed and talent outside to get behind defenses.”
Tannehill was most dangerous when he attempted passes out of play-action in 2019. Tannehill completed 76.5% of those play-action passes and had an average of 13.6 yards per attempt, with both stats the highest among any quarterbacks with at least 75 play-action pass attempts. His average play-action completion gained 17.8 yards, also best in the NFL.
That kind of impact validates the Titans’ decision to sign Henry to a long-term deal despite the questionable return teams have received on big-money contracts for high-profile running backs in recent years. Among them:
In July 2018, the Rams signed Todd Gurley to a four-year, $60 million contract extension with $45 million in guarantees, making him the highest-paid running back in the NFL at the time. He has battled injuries and was released this offseason before signing with the Falcons.
David Johnson signed a three-year, $39 million extension with the Arizona Cardinals in September 2018 with $30 million guaranteed. He was injured in 2018, ineffective in 2019 and was shipped to Houston as part of the DeAndre Hopkins trade this offseason.
Unlike those three backs, Henry is not known as much of a threat in the passing game. He finished with 18 receptions for 206 yards last season, including a 75-yard touchdown on a screen pass in the season opener against the Cleveland Browns.
Offensive coordinator Arthur Smith should work to get Henry more involved in the passing game.
“I feel like we’ve got a lot of guys that can take it to the house,” Smith said in June. “We want to enhance those strengths that they have. We’re going to continue to try to build off that and we want to be the most explosive unit we can.”
The screen game would give Henry a chance to get the ball in the open field with blockers in front of him. Well-timed screen passes can result in more of the home run plays the Titans are looking for from their offense.
Over the past two seasons, the Titans made strong pushes for the playoffs in December. Henry’s 625 yards in December almost launched Tennessee into the playoffs in 2018. Last season his 549-yard performance in four games in December helped to boost the Titans into the postseason as a wild-card team. He rushed for 1,273 yards in the eight-game span from Week 10 through the divisional playoffs last season. According to Elias Sports Bureau, that’s the third-most rush yards in an eight-game span including the playoffs in NFL history.
Big, bruising backs can wear defenses down late in the season. As a featured back, Henry has proved he can elevate his level of play when the pressure is on.