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Derrick Henry’s Injury Presents the Ultimate Chance to Test the Running Back Hypothesis

We’ve spent years arguing about how important RBs are. An unfortunate injury will now give us a real opportunity to find out.
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Derrick Henry is an outlier in nearly every sense—a workhorse running back who has missed only a small handful of snaps throughout his career and managed to artfully dodge the fast-moving hook that often yanks high-volume running backs off the stage after a handful of 375-plus carry seasons.

And while it’s unfortunate that it would take an injury that is potentially season-ending to test this hypothesis, we are about to get a thorough look at the true irreplaceability of a running back at a time when the NFL is at a crossroads in how the league considers the importance of the position. Henry is in his own class, but what happens next with the Titans may inform the rest of the league for years to come.

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Amid this massive running back devaluation, we have seen some very smart and pragmatic franchises reach and overpay at the position. The Panthers signed Christian McCaffrey to a long-term extension even after Todd Gurley flamed out with the Rams. Andy Reid, long known as a nonbeliever of premium running back talent, took Clyde Edwards-Helaire in the first round of the 2020 draft, despite cultivating decades of war room stories about his disdain for wasting such capital at the position. The Steelers, a team with myriad needs that has so often outpaced its opponents in terms of draft return, took Najee Harris in the first round of the ’21 draft, and Harris was one of two running backs to be selected in the first round. The Ravens’ biggest barrier to making a Super Bowl run may be their injury-depleted running back room.

Chargers coach Brandon Staley cut through the battle between analytics and run the baw traditionalists this year when explaining the true value of the running game in a way that we could all understand. Since then, the battle between the running-backs-are-important crowd and the ignore-the-position-altogether-and-pass-every-down crowd has been a little gentler. We’re almost to the point where Dave Gettleman can mention Saquon Barkley’s name in public without getting an egg tossed at his head.

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But imagine if Adrian Pederson, who was signed to Tennessee’s practice squad Monday, comes in and starts averaging somewhere in the neighborhood of 4.5 yards per carry. What if the Titans can schematically force a similar loaded box percentage (eight or more defenders in the box) as Henry, who, outside of McCaffrey, Mark Ingram and Elijah Mitchell, saw more brick walls than any running back in the NFL this year and, because of that, create some of the advantageous matchups in the passing game?

It feels highly unlikely because of Henry’s entirely unique skill set. His almost God-given ability to exist in this precise, one-cut rushing offense remains one of the best scheme fits in modern NFL history. But finding a one-cut back comfortable working in the outside zone is easier said than done. There is a reason that Kyle Shanahan coveted certain backs during his first few free agencies, and reasons why the Packers spent second-round capital on AJ Dillon (as well as holding on to Aaron Jones following a lukewarm entry into free agency). Not every running back is as decisive and powerful as Henry. No running back presents the biological wrecking ball that Henry does. No back may be stronger in hand-to-hand combat and deft enough to contribute situationally in the passing game.

This offseason, I asked Henry about the inevitability that always confronts running backs and he said: “God has a plan for you; just live it up.” He seemed to embody that zen and never altered his running style to pivot toward longevity (not that it exists, but he had the financial incentive to try). Coming into the year, if you separated Henry’s yards after first contact and gave that yardage to an isolated back, that person would be second in the NFL in rushing since 2019 … to Henry himself.

All of this morphed into a player who made up a large part of Tennessee’s total team identity. And even though I’ll still argue that the Titans are more than just Henry, testing that hypothesis firsthand will be an instructive endeavor. If Tennessee thrives without the most singularly gifted running back since his replacement, Peterson, in his heyday, then the perception of the position itself will change. If the Titans nosedive (which, again, I don’t expect), we may see more teams less likely to treat their own running backs with the nonchalance of a rental car.

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