Derrick Henry Injury Impact on NFL Landscape

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Derrick Henry Injury Impact on NFL Landscape

Arthur Smith is no longer the offensive coordinator in Tennessee, but when Atlanta’s new head coach appeared on the Flying Coach podcast this summer, he relayed a humorous anecdote about a reporter who had asked Smith if he knew that the Titans had the NFL’s highest run rate in neutral situations, an apparent sin in today’s pass-happy NFL. Smith responded, “Do you know that we have Derrick Henry?”

Henry has been the NFL’s most unstoppable force at any position over the past two and a half seasons, but that came to a screeching halt with the news that he will likely miss the rest of the season with a broken foot. The Titans appeared to be flying high coming off a division win over the Colts that put Tennessee in prime position to win the AFC South, but head coach Mike Vrabel’s team will need to reinvent itself moving forward without Henry. This article will explore the fallout.

Adrian Peterson

Adrian Peterson gets an opportunity

Until the Titans signed Adrian Peterson to the practice squad, it was difficult to say how the Titans would fill Henry’s role. At the time, Jeremy McNichols was the only running back on the active roster.

McNichols has contributed a passing-down back; he has 21 catches but only seven carries this season, which made it difficult to envision how the Titans’ run game would move forward with him in the lead role. Tennessee might have expanded quarterback Ryan Tannehill’s role in the option run game but that wasn’t going to account for all of Henry’s workload. The options behind McNichols were also limited: second-year back Darrynton Evans is on injured reserve, undrafted rookie Mekhi Sargent is unproven, and journeyman Dontrell Hilliard is unlikely to make a significant contribution.

The addition of Peterson could resolve those concerns. Peterson’s running style limited his potential team fits but the Titans profile as a perfect match; Tennessee is one of a few NFL teams that use the under-center, downhill run game that Peterson has thrived in as a foundational part of their offense. Peterson was still a capable back for the Detroit Lions last season and he could have enough juice left to give this offense a physical presence at the running back position. Henry can’t be replaced, but given where we are in the NFL season, Peterson profiles as about as good a fit as Tennessee could have hoped for in the free agency pool.

Changes in the Tennessee Offense

Peterson’s presence should allow the Titans to continue operating the bulk of their offensive concepts, but offensive coordinator Todd Downing is likely to emphasize different parts of the gameplan and put more on quarterback Ryan Tannehill’s shoulders moving forward.

In many ways, Tennessee is starting from scratch on offense. The playbook will remain the same, but football is ultimately about players, not plays, and Tennessee needs to figure out who their playmakers will be. Receiver A.J. Brown is the clear top target but the Titans need more players to step up behind him, especially as their passing game will need to generate more production relative to the run game without Henry. Veteran Julio Jones is an obvious candidate for an expanded role but he has battled hamstring injuries throughout the season, which makes him hard to count on. It’s more likely that Tannehill gets piecemeal contributions from journeymen Chester Rogers, Marcus Johnson, and Josh Reynolds, though it is also possible a player such as rookie Nick Westbrook-Ikhine could seize an expanded role in the offense.

Unexpected contributors could emerge, but the Titans’ offense is unlikely to match their previous production without Henry. There are reasonable debates about the relative value of running backs but no offense gets better by losing one of its elite playmakers, and Henry is certainly that for the Titans. There is a limit to what they can change schematically because Tennessee’s offensive line is not set up to sit back and pass protect consistently, so the run-action game should remain a key part of the offense even if they increase their pass ratio in these situations. Analytic studies have demonstrated that a strong run game is not required for run-action/play-action passes to work but Henry’s absence will provide an interesting case study into whether the windows for in-breaking routes at the second level shrink without the presence of the big back.

Impact on the AFC Playoff Field

Tennessee remains the heavy favorite to win the AFC South; the Titans play a favorable schedule the rest of the way, with two games against the Texans, one against the Jaguars, and one against the Dolphins included in their final nine matchups.

The NFL playoffs should still be in reach, but Henry’s absence is likely to impact Tennessee’s seeding and their ability to make an impact once they get to the playoffs. The Titans currently sit atop the AFC as the only team with six wins, but they have to go on the road this week to face a Los Angeles Rams that acquired star edge rusher, Von Miller, from the Broncos on the same day that Henry’s injury was announced. Tennessee does hold the head-to-head tiebreaker over Buffalo, but the Bills face a similarly favorable schedule and could take advantage if the Titans lose to the Rams this week, or to the Saints or Patriots in the weeks to follow.

Tennessee has time to reinvent themselves by the NFL playoffs and Henry could return by that point, but as things stand, the other AFC contenders would prefer to see the Titans than most opponents in the first round. Tennessee’s defense reverted to their usual lackluster play against the Colts after they shut down quarterback Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs two weeks ago; Tannehill and A.J. Brown are a formidable threat in the passing game, but the other AFC playoff contenders are confident in their quarterbacks and have stronger run games and/or defenses.

The AFC remains wide open; with the Bills, Patriots, Raiders, Chargers, Chiefs, and all four AFC North teams still arguably in the race, it’s difficult to say that any other team’s Super Bowl odds went up significantly as a result of Henry’s injury, but Henry’s absence does remove a potential heavyweight from contention. The NFL is a funny league, and the Titans could surprise us with their response to this obstacle, but it’s going to take a deal of creativity and on-the-fly adjustments for the Titans to compete come January.

Henry’s absence has caused the line on the Titans-Rams matchup to shift from LAR -6 to LAR -8 or -9, which indicates the market values Henry at roughly 2.5 points. How Tennessee adapts on offense in his absence will determine whether that number grows or shrinks moving forward.

Fantasy Impact

With Henry joining Carolina running back Christian McCaffrey on injured reserve, the Daily Fantasy slate is running short on workhorse backs, and season-long fantasy owners will be scrambling to grab McNichols and/or Peterson on waivers this week.

The player who could receive a boost is receiver A.J. Brown, as he will likely become the focal point of a Tennessee offense that should remain productive, but that knowledge is of limited use as Brown prepares for a matchup with the Los Angeles Rams that will likely regularly pit him against star defensive back Jalen Ramsey. Brown has been on fire the past two weeks and should still be started in most season-long formats but could be a valuable play in the weeks to come if he doesn’t put up big numbers against the Rams.

Conclusion

There was always the knowledge that the clock would strike midnight for Derrick Henry and his monster workload, but it’s a sad day for NFL fans nevertheless. Defensive backs around the NFL may be thrilled that they won’t be posterized on one of Henry’s trademark stiff-arms, but few others will be happy; few players can match Henry’s entertainment value and the league won’t be the same without him. Henry is one of a kind and NFL fans can only hope that he’s able to regain his form when he returns from this injury.

About the author:

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Steven Clinton, better known as "The Professor", is a former D-1 Quality Control Assistant (Northwestern, Toledo) who holds a B.A. in Economics and M.S. in Predictive Analytics from Northwestern University. He maintains an end-to-end NFL game projection model and is a film junkie who breaks down the tape of every NFL game.

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