Details of Derrick Henry’s contract suggest Titans got a good deal

Derrick Henry got his lucrative long-term contract extension with the Titans before Wednesday’s 4 p.m. ET deadline and four months after being franchise-tagged. Henry, who led the NFL with 1,540 yards rushing and helped lead Tennessee to the AFC championship game last season, agreed to a four-deal, per multiple reports.

While it’s not surprising that the Titans, with a run-heavy offense, locked up Henry though the 2023 season, it may be shocking to some that Henry “settled” for being the league’s fifth highest-paid feature back in terms of average annual salary.

According to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, Henry’s new four-year contract is worth $50 million, with more than half, $25.5 million — over essentially the first two seasons — guaranteed. That comes out to $12.5 million per season.’

Christian McCaffrey, who made first-team All-Pro at two positions for his 2019 season, remains the highest-paid running back in the game overall. McCaffrey earlier this year signed a four-year extension with the Panthers worth $64 million, with more than $38 million guaranteed. Last fall, the Cowboys gave Ezekiel Elliott a six-year, $90 million deal with $50 million guaranteed.

That puts McCaffrey at $16 million per season and Elliott at $15 million per season, both well ahead of Henry. The surprise, however, comes from the fact the Texans’ David Johnson ($13 million per season) and the Jets’ Le’Veon Bell ($13.125 million) also average more money than Henry, per the deals they signed in 2018 and early 2019, respectively. Johnson ($24.682 million) got less guaranteed money than Henry, but Bell ($27 million), like McCaffrey and Elliott, got more.

Before the start of free agency this year, the Titans took care of their new starting QB, Ryan Tannehill, with a four-year, $118 million deal — with $62 million guaranteed and a $29.5 million average annual value. Given that Tannehill was an elite downfield play-action passer who thrived off the power running game last season, it was a no-brainer that Henry would be signed for about the same duration.

While keeping Tannehill and Henry together as a tandem, the Titans also got a very good deal on the lifeblood of their offense, for a couple reasons: Henry’s age and his usage.

Henry will turn 27 in December, which is on the older side for a fifth-year back. It has been well-documented that workhorses of his ilk tend to wear down around age 30. He will be 29 when the 2023 NFL regular season ends.

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Elliott and McCaffrey are 24. They also started at higher salary points as high first-round draft picks, with Elliott going No. 4 overall in 2016 and McCaffrey going No. 8 overall in 2017. Henry went No. 45 overall, in the second round, in Elliott’s Class of 2016.

Henry has one Pro Bowl season to his credit over four years, his breakout 2019 campaign. McCaffrey is coming off two dominant years, including leading the NFL with 2,392 yards from scrimmage last season. Elliott has been a rushing machine since earning first-team All-Pro status as a rookie.

As for Johnson and Bell, those are simply bad player-friendly deals. The Cardinals admitted they overpaid for Johnson when they moved his contract in the DeAndre Hopkins trade. The Jets, ever since Adam Gase won his power struggle with former GM Mike Maccagnan, have seemed to regret Maccagnan giving Bell a big free-agent contract  last offseason. Johnson and Bell both are about two years older than Henry, too.

Now, let’s look at Henry’s production. He needed a league-high 303 carries last season to gain those 1,540 yards, while also leading the NFL with 16 rushing touchdowns and 102.7 yards rushing per game. But with only 18 receptions for 206 yards, his 2019 scrimmage total was limited to 1,746 yards.

McCaffrey had way more. Elliott, after posting 2,001 scrimmage yards in 2018, also edged Henry last year with 1,777. 

Johnson got paid mainly because he led the league with 373 touches for 2,118 scrimmage yards and 20 TDs in 2016, and despite missing most of the 2017 season. Bell was coming off two massive scrimmage seasons with the Steelers (1,884 and 1,946 yards) and fully rested during the 2018 season before the Jets signed him.

Bell didn’t have a great first season with the Jets because of a big dropoff in carries and bad run blocking, but he still managed 66 catches for 461 yards. Consider that in four seasons with the Titans, Henry has just 57 total catches for 578 yards.

Henry is a special home-run hitting power back, but he won’t be given an expanded role as a receiver and is bound to see a fewer early-down touches. Dion Lewis is gone, but rookie Darrynton Evans is a fresher, more explosive change-of-pace type who’ll also bring great pop to the passing game. He’s a potential replacement for Henry should Henry not play up to his deal over the next couple seasons.

The Titans needed to take care of Henry in order to keep their running game strong and maintain Tannehill’s efficiency, but they were smart not to overpay him after being too aggressive with Tannehill. That comes down to the quarterback market being inflated and the running back market being capped, especially for backs who aren’t big-time elements in the passing game.

Henry would have earned $10.2 million under the tag; now he’s getting significantly more than that per season, as well as more than double that amount in guaranteed money.  For the Titans, who needed to pay a veteran back, that’s a reasonable price, one that reflects Henry’s past and future value to them.

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