Abbie Parr/Getty Images
PLAYERS & TEAM EARNINGS

Derrick Henry and the Myths About Running Back Market Value

Derrick Henry has been on a tear since 2019, but his Titans contract only guarantees an average of $12.5 million per year. Let’s talk about why.

If fantasy football was real football, running backs would be among the wealthiest athletes in all of sports. They dominate the first couple rounds of plenty of drafts, and the top-tier picks are, barring injury, are often the ones propelling managers to victory.

Alas, fantasy is not reality. In the modern NFL, amind theories about backfield interchangeability and the ongoing shift toward a more pass-heavy game, running back salaries just don’t line up with on-field production.

This isn’t news to anyone who follows the business of the NFL, but it’s really starting to spotlight some unfortunate contractual oddities — most notably with Tennessee’s Derrick Henry.

He already has an Offensive Player of the Year trophy. He’s already the most punishing between-the-tackles runner in the game. And in Sunday’s thrilling overtime win at Seattle, the Alabama product ran for 182 yards and three scores, adding another 55 yards through the air just for kicks.

But by any measure, his contract is one of the most undervalued in football based on not just his sheer level of productivity, but how it translates to winning football games.

Derrick Henry’s Deal

It’s still early, but the best running back in 2021 so far was also the best in 2020. Derrick Henry led the NFL in rushing yards (2,027) and total attempts (78) both by wide margins last year. That resulted in the most rushing touchdowns (17) in the league as well.

For his efforts, Henry is just the No. 5 highest-paid running back in the league, taking home an average of $12,500,000 over the course of a four-year deal that began last season.

For context, the Titans are paying quarterback Ryan Tannehill an average of $29,500,000 per season and receiver Julio Jones $22,000,000. That’s plenty of evidence to suggest that the Titans and GM Jon Robinson aren’t making financial decisions purely based on-field production.

Heck, he’s even the Old Spice Guy now; you don’t see antiperspirant brands lining up to add Tannehill and Jones to their teams.

It’s not like Henry signed his contract before he became a superstar, either. When he inked his current deal, he was coming off a 2019 in which he also led the league in attempts, rushing yards, and touchdowns. He accounted for 69% of Tennessee’s total offense that year. The facts suggest that Henry’s pay is unequivocally the result of his position rather than his ability.

When you step back and look at league trends, this becomes even more apparent.

The State of Pay

Out of the 30 highest-paid players in the NFL measured by average annual salary, there are zero running backs, as noted by overthecap.com. It shouldn’t be a surprise that quarterbacks dominate the list; in fact, there are 15 QBs — nearly half the starters in the league — who will make more this season than Christian McCaffrey, the highest-paid NFL running back ($16,015,853 average per year).

The trend isn’t exclusive to quarterbacks, however. There are 14 wide receivers who will make more than McCaffrey, and 14 more edge rushers. And it’s not like we’re pointing out the obvious, like how a kicker doesn’t make as much as a quarterback; running backs inherently bring a ton of value to their teams, even in a changing NFL landscape that has increasingly emphasized the downfield passing game and spread packages.

How did this happen? Three main factors very much appear to be in play.

First, the obvious: a running back’s shelf life tends to be incredibly short. If, on average, NFL running backs only last about three years, a majority never makes it to a second contract. By the time a ball-carrier has a hypothetical chance to negotiate for more, he’s often out of the league entirely. And for those who remain after, say, five years or so, production tends to wane. As ESPN’s Mina Kimes points out, running backs tend to lose value by age 28.

With that in mind, high-value, long-term deals are rarely considered from the front office perspective (See “Gurley, Todd”). But what this doesn’t account are the rare, elite backs that prove to be both productive and durable.

Most running backs are, right or wrong, perceived to be replaceable. Josh Hermsmeyer of FiveThirtyEight argued that rushing success has more to do with scheme than the player actually handling the ball. That view is anecdotally borne out.

As Hermsmeyer demonstrates, Mike Davis stepped in for Christian McCaffrey in Carolina and actually put up better numbers than the 2019 Pro Bowler. Alexander Mattison did the same in Minnesota when Dalvin Cook went down. In a league with a salary cap, the big contracts are more efficiently handed out elsewhere.

Then there’s just the direction of the game. A more analytically-driven sports world means franchises do extensive research around whether pass plays or runs are more efficient in a broad range of situations. It’s clear at this point that the league is convinced it’s often a better bet to pass than to run.

Top 5 NFL QB contracts by average annual value (AAV) vs. top 5 RB contracts by AAV (via SpoTrac)

Quarterbacks are already paid an astronomical amount. In order to get the most value out of them, a team needs to pair them with a receiving corps that can capitalize on a great arm — but there’s still room for high-profile, high-value running backs in the NFL.

Henry has already strung together two elite seasons and is on his way to a third. Unfortunately for him, he’ll be closing in on 30 when his current contract is up. Will the Titans, or anyone else, find it wise to offer a considerable raise to a guy already above the peak average production age for his position?

If there was ever a case to make about the next Adrian Peterson or Frank Gore — both indomitable runners for whom wear and tear practically didn’t apply — it’s Henry.

Sign Up For Our Newsletter

Get on our list for weekly sports business, industry trends, interviews, and more.

Even if Henry doesn’t fall off before his four-year, $50 million deal is up, it would be risky (and perhaps downright crippling) for the Titans or any other organization to offer him a legitimately huge bag. Whether that’s right or wrong, fair or unfair is another conversation.

But here and now, the team owes Henry an average of $12.5 million per year through 2023 — the equivalent of veteran borderline starting QB or Pro Bowl-caliber safety money.

And until Henry’s condition somehow drastically changes, you can’t put a price on that kind of value Tennessee is getting out of every last dollar they’re paying him.