When Tennessee Titans general manager Jon Robinson inked former New England running back Dion Lewis four-year contract during the first week of free agency the speculation door opened.
Who is going to be the lead back for the Titans in the upcoming season?
Heading into the offseason, many Titans fans thought it was a sure bet Derrick Henry would be top ball carrier for Tennessee moving forward. That idea was enhanced when the Titans cut running back Demarco Murray just before free agency started.
With Murray banged up and underperforming for majority of the 2017-18 season, Henry had his best season as a running back in his second year. He rushed 176 times for a team-high 744 yards and five touchdowns, adding 11 receptions for 136 yards and a score as a pass receiver out of the backfield.
Henry got fans excited as he showed how effective his bruising running style can be late in games. That was never on display more than his 153-yard, one-touchdown performance in the win over the Kansas City Chiefs in the Wild Card round of the postseason. His highlight from the game being the 35-yard touchdown run to kick off the fourth quarter and get the Titans back within one score of the Chiefs.
Henry brings a resilient style to the field, but he has his shortcomings. According to Pro Football Focus, Henry graded out as an average pass blocker (71.6) and performed poorly as a pass catcher (45.6).
The downside for Henry but upside for Titans fans — Lewis offers a significant grade increase in pass blocking (78.9) as well as pass catching (77).
It’s easy to see why the Titans committed $19.8 million to Lewis, who is also coming off his best season as a pro. He averaged 5.0 yards per carry on the way to 896 rushing yards and six touchdowns, adding 214 yards and three scores as a pass catcher. Just as important, Lewis played in all 16 games of the season for the first time in his five-year career.
If you go by the numbers and the grades, Lewis is the more-complete running back. PFF graded him out as the fifth-best ball carrier (87.2) in all of football in 2017. Henry ranked 21st (79.3). The four-year deal Lewis signed also must be looked at as contract given to someone the team views as a significant piece to the offense, someone the running game will revolve around if offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur’s past offenses are any indication. Looking at Todd Gurley’s numbers last year with the St. Louis Rams (1,305 rushing yards and 788 receiving yards) in an RPO-style offense, LaFleur’s first year as an offensive coordinator, it’s clear Lewis’ skill set compares more favorable than Henry’s.
That doesn’t mean Henry isn’t valuable. He clearly has an ability to change the outcomes of games when put in the right situation. A good comparison to envision Henry in the new offense is a role Legarrette Blount similarly held with the New England Patriots. He will likely be a back the Titans turn to when needing a touchdown from inside the 10-yard line or when the defense is gassed and Tennessee is looking to ice a game in the second half.
Though it looks like Henry will continue to be second on the depth chart, it’s hard to imagine the Titans not using him more often and in better situations than the last regime. LaFleur has gone on record and said the new offense will be built around the roster’s strengths. If that’s the case, Henry should be in store for strong 2018-19 campaign.