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Derrick Henry Fits Into, but Will Not Transform, the Ravens’ Title Pursuit

Three years ago, the running back could have changed Baltimore’s trajectory. Today, his signing supports an already contending team.

We are at the point in free agency that I like to call: moves that would have been totally earth-shattering if the team did it three years ago. Imagine waking someone up out of a deep hibernation and saying: Hey! Derrick Henry is teaming up with Lamar Jackson! That person would stumble on his way over to the computer out of pure excitement before throwing on 2023 Tennessee Titans film.

This is not to understate the fact that Henry still carried a massive load last season, with 283 attempts for 1,167 yards and 12 touchdowns. He has led the league in rushing attempts in four of the past five seasons. But there is a reason that the Baltimore Ravens offered—and Henry accepted—a deal that pays him up to $20 million over the next two years, while some of the other running backs in this class were offered something closer to what resembles a nice payday (again, relative to the running back market, which is not so much booming, but seeing a very, very, very minute market correction given the talent pool and the rise in salary cap).

Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry vs. the Philadelphia Eagles

Henry won OPOY after the 2020 season.

This is not the move that pushes Baltimore into title contention on its own, though we should not understate Henry’s arrival just months after the Ravens were shoved around in the AFC Championship by a far more physical Kansas City Chiefs team.

Henry was sixth and first, respectively, in each of the past two years in broken tackles. Over the past three years, only Josh Jacobs and Jonathan Taylor have more yardage after initial contact from a defender.

[ 2024 NFL Free Agency: Latest News & Analysis ]

What does this move do? Outside of replacing Gus Edwards, the signing will continue to disincentivize Jackson from leaving the pocket as much. Last year, his rushing numbers were more realistically sustainable than ever, especially considering his career high in attempts and completion percentage. Clearly, there is more room for Jackson to grow within Todd Monken’s offense. Jackson also had career-low numbers in terms of pure play-action attempts, according to Pro-Football-Reference (although, I would be curious to see how some of the Ravens’ exotic run action qualifies in their system).

Henry creates a vacuum of attention in the red zone, making Jackson more likely to take off only between the 20-yard lines. While this isn’t a huge deal, imagine if Baltimore is able to limit Jackson to something within the 110-attempt range, which is what Josh Allen clocked in at last year after a strange, circuitous bit of faux concern on behalf of the Buffalo Bills about their quarterback leaving the pocket too much. (Offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey was helping Allen’s attempt numbers go down; he was fired; and then it was YOLO ball from there on out.)

There is also an interesting component here about risk and reward. Obviously, every time Jackson takes off, something magical can happen. The same is true of Henry, though Henry had half the number of 20-plus-yard runs that Jackson did a year ago. The flip side of that? Jackson does lose the ball when running at a higher rate. Henry did not fumble once last year. He had six a year ago, but that needs to be tucked into its proper context: Henry was carrying the load 350 times in a season, which is monumental.

So, friend who has just woken up from a three-year nap, it’s like anything in life: It’s still pretty cool! However, it’s not what you may have originally imagined. Also, just a heads up, groceries are really expensive now.

The Henry signing fits perfectly into the narrative that Baltimore, while in a state of amazing perpetual contention under John Harbaugh, is ready to take another stab at thwarting the Chiefs this coming winter. Bringing back Justin Madubuike was a big move. Now, it’s about supporting the team’s tentpole players.