The pros, cons of a Derrick Henry extension for Tennessee Titans
ESPN reported last week the Titans are open to a new deal for Henry, whose deal expires after the 2023 season. Henry signed a four-year deal before the 2020 season worth $50 million.
Age, injury and effectiveness will factor into the Titans' decision to extend the 28-year-old running back who was on his way to a third consecutive NFL rushing title before a foot injury in October cost him the final half of the 2021 regular season.
There are pros and cons to signing Henry. Let's go through them.
Short-term cap relief
The Titans only have about $2.5 million in cap space, according to Spotrac. A Henry extension, given his $15 million cap hit this year and next, could benefit the current cap situation and not immediately impact the future with a deal that loads up the dead cap charges in the first two seasons.
Henry's current deal was built similarly, to protect the team's salary cap flexibility if Henry became inefficient. If the Titans had wanted to, it would only have a $6 million dead cap charge from a $30 million cap hit spread over the 2022 and 2023 seasons if they released Henry.
At this point, considering such a release would be ludicrous. But at the time of Henry's extension, after the 2019 season, he had only been the No. 1 full-time back for a season and a half.
NOT ON FIELD AT OTAs:Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry not on field at first open OTA session
Henry is two or three elite seasons away from being a Hall of Famer
Henry's foot injury ruined the Alabama alum's chance to complete a three-year stretch that could have gone a long way toward making the Hall of Fame.
The best thing for Henry's Hall of Fame chances would at minimum be two or three seasons at peak or near-peak production.
Looking for a comparison? Terrell Davis had a three-year stretch that was so good that he was inducted into the Hall of Fame despite 78 career games. Henry's injury last October curtailed what could have been a historic three-year stretch of seasons with more than 1,500 yards.
If Henry were to play elsewhere and continued stiff-arming defenders into the third row, Titans fans won't be happy.
Future of QB position is unsettled, which increases Henry's importance
Ryan Tannehill's contract is on a similar timeline, though his disappointing 2021 season and the importance of QB play means the pressure is on him in 2022.
Who knows whether Tannehill, another veteran or third-round draft pick Malik Willis is the Titans' starting quarterback in 2024. That uncertainty only increases the value of having a healthy Henry still in his prime to lean on for some consistency.
Running back aging comes for every player. But when?
Henry's injury last season was concerning for all the legitimate on-field reasons for a team that ended up winning the AFC's No. 1 seed.
But the Titans cannot ignore if Henry's injury history grows. Extending him now without significant parameters or with a short term would be very risky.
Fair or unfair, the career clock on running backs is accelerated. Receivers Tyreek Hill, Davante Adams and Keenan Allen are approaching 30 and have earned extensions with sizable raises. Henry is just 28, but he was also the oldest player inside the NFL's top 10 rushers last year.
Avoiding the drop-off, a la Eddie George
Henry turns 30 just after New Year's Day 2024. Letting the contract run out through that season would benefit the Titans in that they could choose not to pay Henry in his 30s. Henry's motivation to get an extension done could be high; it's no certainty Henry can make the same money via free agency elsewhere that he would in an extension.
It harkens back to a decision the Titans made in 2004. Eddie George was released by Tennessee in a salary cap move before his age-31 season. George, whose yards per carry had dropped from 4.1 yards at his peak to 3.3 yards per rush in 2003, played one season with the Dallas Cowboys and retired.
Valuing running backs too much is always risky
Henry is one of the league's best running backs since the turn of the century.
But the concern is the recent history of running backs whose elite production eroded by age 30. Of the top 20 running backs in yardage since 2000, 12 failed to rush for 1,000 yards in a season after turning 30.
There are two paths that have been cleared out. Of those eight backs who continued to be impactful in their 30s, six (Frank Gore, Thomas Jones, Adrian Peterson, Fred Taylor, Tiki Barber and Warrick Dunn) had multiple 1,000-yard seasons. And of the 12 who didn't, all but one (Marshawn Lynch) played past their age-32 season.
What does that mean? There is risk in re-signing Henry to any deal that would have the Titans paying Henry past 2025.
Henry has done special things as the Titans' No. 1 back. It wouldn't surprise many in Nashville if he were to continue as an effective back in his 30s. He's currently the league's best back and is physically unique. But history is history, and age cannot be ignored.