In QB-Obsessed NFL, 'King' Derrick Henry Is Making the Case to Sit on MVP Throne

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystOctober 19, 2021

El running back de los Titans de Tennessee, Derrick Henry, corre 76 yardas para anotar un touchdown durante la primera mitad del partido contra los Bills de Buffalo, el lunes 18 de octubre de 2021, en Nashville, Tennessee. (AP Foto/Mark Zaleski)
Mark Zaleski/Associated Press

Derrick Henry's official coronation as the NFL's best player is growing more likely with each passing week. 

Henry is something different altogether at the running back position. In a world where the position has been greatly devalued and doesn't demand the same type of respect or attention it once did, the Tennessee Titans' ball-carrier reigns supreme as a leading MVP candidate. 

Monday's effort against the Tennessee Titans finally placed Henry where he should have been all along this season and that's counted among multiple high-profile quarterbacks as a game-defining talent who is elevating his team beyond its typical capabilities. 

His 143-yard, three-touchdown effort in a 34-31 victory over the Buffalo Bills at Nissan Stadium showed exactly how important the King is to his fiefdom. In doing so, the Titans improved to 4-2 as the leaders of the AFC South. 

Historical precedent favors Henry.

Adrian Peterson in 2012 is the last non-quarterback to claim MVP hardware. The New York Giants' Lawrence Taylor in 1986 is the last individual to play a position other than quarterback or running back to win. 

By scoring three times Monday, Henry became the first player to run for 10 touchdowns in his team's first six games since 2005 when both LaDainian Tomlinson and Shaun Alexander did so, per ESPN Stats & Info. Alexander won the MVP that year. Tomlinson did so the following season. 

Henry's numbers are extraordinary. Physically, he's Jim Brown playing in the modern era. Defenders continually make business decisions whether they want to even try and tackle the 247-pound freight train. 

From a production standpoint, no one can touch Henry. The Cleveland Browns' Nick Chubb is a special runner as well. Currently, Chubb is dealing with a calf injury. He didn't play Sunday. Despite that, he still ranks second with 523 rushing yards behind Henry's 783.

Therein lies the biggest difference between Henry and everyone else. He's the league's premier workhorse and only gets better when featured more. 

"We continue to jump on Derrick's back and he's willing and able to carry us," Titans head coach Mike Vrabel told reporters after the game. 

NASHVILLE, TENNESSEE - OCTOBER 18: Quarterback Ryan Tannehill #17 hands off to teammate running back Derrick Henry #22 of the Tennessee Titans against the Buffalo Bills during the first quarter at Nissan Stadium on October 18, 2021 in Nashville, Tennessee
Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

Some great backs can be found around the NFL. But Henry has 51 more carries, 260 more yards and five more rushing touchdowns than anyone else. The King sits upon a throne above everyone else with the carcasses of would-be tacklers strewn everywhere. 

For comparison, the gap between the No. 1 passer and his competition isn't nearly as great. Tom Brady has 118 more passing yards than Derek Carr. Patrick Mahomes' 18 touchdown passes are barely ahead of Brady's 17. Great quarterback play can be found throughout the NFL. The same can't be said about a true difference-maker at running back. 

Henry's value extends beyond the numbers. Granted, no one can touch what the 27-year-old has accomplished over the last few seasons.

His three games with 125 or more rushing yards plus three or more rushing scores already tied for the most ever in a single season in the Super Bowl era with 11 games left to play, according to NFL Research. He's the most productive runner ever over a 40-game stretch, per NFL on CBS. Henry is well on his way to accumulating the most rushing yards ever over a three-year period and becoming the first-ever running back to lead the NFL in rushing and scores during the same stretch. He ran for 1,045 more yards over expected since the start of the 2018 campaign, per NFL Next Gen Stats

Furthermore, he's on pace to shatter Larry Johnson's record of 416 carries in a single season and Eric Dickerson's long-standing tally of 2,105 rushing yards in 1984. Yet, Henry's presence defines Titans football. He's the driving force behind the team. In a pass-first league, the Titans' running back makes the entire squad far more formidable. Everyone around him wants to play harder because of what the running back is capable of on any given snap. 

"We always know it's one play away when you got Derrick in the backfield," center Ben Jones said. "Y'know, every play you're doing a little extra because you don't know which play it's gonna be in the game when he can break it. ... He definitely brought a spark to us. It definitely makes the defense think, 'Hey, we gotta stop him,' because he can change the game." 

As Jones mentioned, Henry can turn a game with one big run. He's consistent in this regard. His 11 rushing touchdowns of 50 or more yards tied him for fourth all-time with former Titan Chris Johnson, according to NFL Research. Henry may be a big back, but he's also one of the toughest to catch when he gets to the second and third levels. NFL Next Gen Stats clocked the near-250-pounder at 21.80 MPH when he broke a 76-yard run Monday, which is the fastest time by any ball-carrier this season.


GOING, GOING, GONE. The King has done it again. @KingHenry_2 #Titans 📺: #BUFvsTEN on ESPN 📱: https://t.co/Vs5zpZtzd9 https://t.co/dUbsOdy8jI

"It's still too slow," Henry said afterward. "I'm from Florida. Florida boys, it's in the water. … You gotta have speed." 

Whatever it is, the two-time rushing leader has it. Henry actually leads all backs with 11 rushes of 20 MPH or faster since the start of the 2019 campaign (h/t ESPN's Turron Davenport). His unreal combination of size and speed changes schemes, angles and just the dynamic of trying to defend a back unlike any other.

Quarterback Ryan Tannehill called Monday's big run the "spark" behind getting the offense on the same page.  From that point forward, the Titans' offense scored on every drive, excluding the end of half and end of the game. 

Henry is already the reigning NFL Offensive Player of the Year. He deserves more recognition as a transcendent talent. The NFL may be a quarterback-driven league, but King Henry has more than proven he's ready to take the crown as the game's most valuable performer. 


Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @brentsobleski.