Tennessee Titans Better Off Riding the Franchise Tag with Derrick Henry

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistJuly 11, 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

The Tennessee Titans continue to state they'd like to sign reigning league rushing champion Derrick Henry to a long-term contract. 

"He wants to get something done," Titans general manager Jon Robinson said in a June press conference. "We want to get something done, and we're working toward that. It's about coming to that common-ground spot as it is in every negotiation. We're anxious to keep the conversations going and keep talking through things."

But the sides are running out of time ahead of Wednesday's deadline to sign franchise-tag recipients, and Terry McCormick of Titan Insider reported this week that "no extension is on the verge of happening."

Deadlines drive deals, but that could be a sign that too much damage was done when the Carolina Panthers handed running back Christian McCaffrey a market-resetting extension worth more than $16 million per year earlier this offseason. 

In 2019, Henry led the league with 1,540 rushing yards and 16 rushing touchdowns while carrying the Titans to the AFC Championship Game. It would be hard for the Tennessee front office to argue that he isn't worth top dollar at that position. 

FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS - JANUARY 04: Derrick Henry #22 of the Tennessee Titans looks on as they play against the New England Patriots in the AFC Wild Card Playoff game at Gillette Stadium on January 04, 2020 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. The Titans won
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Before McCaffrey signed his new deal with Carolina in April, Henry suggested to Rich Eisen that Ezekiel Elliott's six-year, $90 million contract was "the floor" with regard to his expectations. And who can blame him? 

That, however, is exactly why the Titans shouldn't even consider a long-term deal unless it represents a tremendous hometown discount. 

Henry has already signed his franchise tender. He'll cost the team just $10.28 million in 2020 and less than $13 million if they use the tag again in 2021. In other words, they basically own his rights on a two-year deal worth about $23 million with only $10.28 million guaranteed. 

At the conclusion of that stretch, Henry will be 28 years old and coming off his sixth pro season. That's typically when teams want to move on from running backs, especially those with physical styles that often result in short peaks and swift declines. 

The Titans can gain a bit of short-term flexibility with a long-term extension (potentially lowering Henry's cap numbers in 2020 and 2021), but is that worth guaranteeing him, say, $30 million over four or five seasons instead of just over $10 million this season? Almost certainly not. 

The primary risk associated with riding the tag is it's possible Henry is only starting to take off and will continue to be a superstar beyond 2021, at which point he'd probably be playing somewhere else. 

It's also true that the Titans would likely—but not certainly—burn the bridge on a long-term contract by playing the tag game with Henry the way Washington did with Kirk Cousins and the Pittsburgh Steelers did with Le'Veon Bell. 

But that risk has to be outweighed by the fact that Henry is a battering-ram-style running back coming off what could be an aberrational season. He was never an All-Pro or a Pro Bowler before exploding during the second half of his fourth pro campaign.

The Alabama product put up an unbelievable 1,273 yards and 11 touchdowns in the eight games leading up to Tennessee's AFC Championship meeting with the Kansas City Chiefs, but he was never a consistently dominant player before that, and the Chiefs shut him down in that January tilt. 

Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

The fact that even one of the hottest hands in league history couldn't help get his team to the Super Bowl is another indication that running backs can't be true, consistent difference-makers in the modern NFL, which is why they so rarely live up to lucrative second contracts. 

According to Spotrac, seven backs had non-rookie deals with average annual salaries higher than $6 million in 2019. Not one of those seven participated in the playoffs. Meanwhile, a team featuring the NFL's rushing yardage leader hasn't won a Super Bowl since 1998, and only three of this century's 20 Super Bowl-winning teams had a Pro Bowler at that position. 

There's a very good chance Henry hit his ceiling this past winter. If the Titans are lucky, he'll remain as effective in 2020, maybe even 2021. But it's likely the 26-year-old will regress well before he hits 30. And even if he does remain a strong player at 28 or 29, the odds are against his making a championship-like difference.

In the event of another tag in 2021, it's also possible Henry could take a page from Bell's playbook and sit out the entire season. But how did that pan out for Bell? He lost a year of his prime, signed a high-paying but not record-setting deal with the New York Jets and his numbers declined substantially during a terrible 2019 season. 

And when Bell sat out for that 2018 campaign in Pittsburgh, he was one year younger than Henry would be if he were to follow suit in 2021.

Again, there's a small chance Henry sustains his 2019 success several years down the line, and that said success takes place elsewhere, and that the Titans miss out on a Super Bowl because of a departure stemming from the team's refusal to sign him to a lucrative long-term contract.

But the risk associated with that far-fetched scenario shouldn't be enough to compel Tennessee to chance mortgaging its future with an expensive new deal. 

         

Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012. Follow him on Twitter, @Brad_Gagnon.

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