Derrick Henry Will Be NFL's Most Coveted Free-Agent RB; Where Could He Land?

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistJanuary 21, 2020

BALTIMORE, MARYLAND - JANUARY 11: Derrick Henry #22 of the Tennessee Titans celebrates with fans after defeating the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Divisional Playoff game at M&T Bank Stadium on January 11, 2020 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Will Newton/Getty Images)
Will Newton/Getty Images

Fresh off a perfectly timed breakout season in which he led the NFL with 1,540 rushing yards and 16 rushing touchdowns, Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry is slated to hit free agency in March.

And now that the Titans' surprisingly successful season has come to an end one stop short of Super Bowl LIV, we can start to look ahead at the case made by Henry in recent months to become the highest-paid running back in the league. 

The 2016 second-round pick just turned 26, and his light workload from his first three seasons—he carried the ball just 167 times per year on average before running it a league-high 303 times in 2019—could bode well for his chances of sustaining his Pro Bowl-level play for several seasons to come. 

Still, you'll find a lot of teams just aren't willing to pay up for players at a devalued, volatile position. Henry might have been the best back in the league during the second half of the 2019 campaign, but his market will likely be pretty small in comparison to star players at premium positions. 

     

Have teams learned their lesson?

In other words, was Le'Veon Bell enough of a cautionary tale to scare teams away from lucrative running back contracts? What about Todd Gurley? David Johnson? Ezekiel Elliott? 

The New York Jets made Bell the highest-paid running back in the AFC last spring, according to Spotrac. He went on to average a conference-low 3.2 yards per carry as the Jets won seven games behind the second-lowest-scoring offense in the NFL. 

ORCHARD PARK, NEW YORK - DECEMBER 29: Star Lotulelei #98 of the Buffalo Bills tackles Le'Veon Bell #26 of the New York Jets during the first quarter of an NFL game at New Era Field on December 29, 2019 in Orchard Park, New York. (Photo by Bryan M. Bennett
Bryan Bennett/Getty Images

The Los Angeles Rams made Gurley the league's highest-paid back in 2018, but he suffered a knee injury later that year and hasn't been the same since. He averaged 4.8 yards per attempt between the start of 2017 and Week 13 in 2018, but since then that average has plummeted to 3.8. He failed to rush for 1,000 yards this season as the Rams offense declined dramatically in a non-playoff year. 

Elliott's new contract with the Dallas Cowboys, which was signed just prior to the 2019 campaign, trumped both Gurley's and Bell's in terms of average salary and practical guarantees. And while he still rushed for 1,357 yards this year, his 4.5 yards-per-attempt average was barely above the middle of the pack. He wasn't a first- or second-team All-Pro, and the Cowboys missed the playoffs with an 8-8 record. 

Johnson is the only other running back making $13 million or more per season (nobody else at that position even makes $9 million a year). He's averaged just 3.6 yards per carry the last three seasons, he hasn't been an All-Pro or a Pro Bowler since 2016, and his Arizona Cardinals still haven't had a winning season since 2015. 

Altogether, nine running backs are making more than an average of $5 million per year. None of those nine participated in this year's playoffs. Each Super Bowl team's No. 1 running back wasn't even drafted, and a team featuring the league's leading rusher hasn't won the Super Bowl this century. 

Henry and 2019 rushing crown runner-up Nick Chubb weren't first-round picks, nor was Pro Bowler Dalvin Cook or NFC rushing touchdown leader Aaron Jones.

Considering all of that as well as the historically short shelf lives at running back, a lot of teams might shy away from spending big bucks on even the brightest of stars at that position.

     

Will a sour ending hurt his case?

Because of his relatively young age, his relatively small workload and his hot walk year, Henry could be an exception to a potential new rule regarding big-money contracts for running backs.

But while he rushed for an unbelievable 1,273 yards and 11 touchdowns in the eight games leading up to Tennessee's AFC Championship tilt with the Kansas City Chiefs, the fact is Kansas City shut him down and the Titans failed to go all the way with one of the hottest offensive hands imaginable. 

KANSAS CITY, MO - JANUARY 19:  Running back Derrick Henry #22 of the Tennessee Titans runs up field against the Kansas City Chiefs in the first half in the AFC Championship Game at Arrowhead Stadium on January 19, 2020 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by
Peter G. Aiken/Getty Images

Against a Chiefs run defense that ranked 29th in DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average) at Football Outsiders, the Alabama product had just 61 scrimmage yards on 21 touches and averaged just 3.6 yards per carry in Sunday's 35-24 loss. 

It's entirely possible that performance will stick with executives who might have considered investing in Henry, especially because it's a reminder that running back success rarely results in team success. 

   

All it takes is one

But there are 32 teams in this league, many of whom are both cap-rich and desperate for a superstar. 

With the salary cap expected to be near the $200 million mark in 2020, somebody will figure it's worth spending Elliott/Gurley/Bell-like money on Henry, just because they have the space and they badly need an elite offensive weapon.

They'll figure that while it's possible he'll tank like Bell or Gurley, there's a chance he'll pick up where he left off in the second half of 2019, and they might even tell themselves that it's only a matter of time before a stud back carries a team to Super Bowl glory. 

Who might be willing to take that chance? 

Tennessee Titans: Tennessee, of course, has the franchise tag at its disposal. And that's not a bad option at all. OvertheCap.com projects that'd cost the Titans only about $12 million on a one-year commitment. The problem is, Tennessee also has to deal with impending free agents Ryan Tannehill and Jack Conklin at quarterback and right tackle, respectively. There's no indication Henry would offer his team a hometown discount, but the Titans will almost certainly try to bring him back one way or another, and they should have the money to do so. They're projected by Spotrac to possess more than $57 million in salary-cap space, and they haven't shied away from handing out large checks in recent offseasons.

Miami Dolphins: Miami had the league's 32nd-ranked running game in 2019 and is slated to enter the offseason with more than $94 million in salary-cap space. That is projected to be the second-highest total in the league, behind only that of the Indianapolis Colts, who don't typically overspend on free agents and have several strong backs. 

Houston Texans: Carlos Hyde and Lamar Miller are both scheduled to become unrestricted free agents, Duke Johnson isn't an every-down back, and the Texans might be getting desperate after another disappointing playoff experience. They're one of 11 teams with more than $60 million in cap space. 

Kansas City Chiefs: Bell claimed in the fall that both the Texans and Chiefs were interested in trading for him. Kansas City's leading rusher in both of this year's playoff games has been its quarterback. The Chiefs could look for a jolt in the backfield. And while they aren't flush with cap space, Chris Jones is their only elite impending free agent. 

Could Daniel Snyder bite on Derrick Henry?
Could Daniel Snyder bite on Derrick Henry?Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images

Washington Redskins: While Washington has Adrian Peterson and Derrius Guice, the former is about to turn 35 and the latter hasn't been able to stay healthy. Would it really be shocking if the down-and-out Redskins decided to make a big splash this offseason? 

Seattle Seahawks: This is extremely unlikely considering that Chris Carson is on the roster and they used a first-round pick on Rashaad Penny two years ago. But both of those backs are coming off major injuries, and Henry has a Marshawn Lynch-like look and feel to him. Only six teams have more cap space, so you never know. 

Detroit Lions: This is also really unlikely considering they have Kerryon Johnson, Ty Johnson and Bo Scarbrough and less than $45 millon in cap space. But they splurged on one of the league's most expensive free agents last year when they signed Trey Flowers. They might be desperate enough for a game-changing back to pull the trigger. 

     

But why not the...

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: They have plenty of cap space, but second-round pick Ronald Jones II made strides in his second season. 

Buffalo Bills: They also have lots of money to spend, but Devin Singletary looks like a potential long-term answer in the backfield. 

Arizona Cardinals: They have the cap space, but even if they lose impending free-agent back Kenyan Drake, the Cards probably don't want to risk having another David Johnson situation on their hands. 

Los Angeles Chargers: While they're likely tempted to bring in a star as they move into their new stadium, and while they have money to spend and are likely to lose Melvin Gordon III, it's apparent they feel strongly about Austin Ekeler (who is a restricted free agent) and Justin Jackson. 

Philadelphia Eagles: The Eagles were widely linked to Bell last year, and Jordan Howard's contract is about to expire, but Miles Sanders had a superb rookie season, and they don't have a ton of cap space.

      

Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012.

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