With the NFL Draft and free agency having come and gone, we’ll break down all sorts of fantasy-relevant questions entering the 2018 season. Up next is a look at which Tennessee Titans running back will be the more productive member of their committee.
Canceling the Derrick Henry Show
At the start of free agency, it appeared that it was finally time for the Derrick Henry show in Tennessee. The team had just released injury-plagued DeMarco Murray, who led its backfield in touches in each of Henry’s two seasons. The Henry hype quickly simmered when the Titans went out and signed former Patriots reclamation project Dion Lewis.
Let’s get this out of the way first: Lewis was better than Henry in 2017. Lewis posted 896 yards and six touchdowns on 180 carries (5.0 yards per carry), while Henry posted 744 yards and five touchdowns on 176 carries (4.2).
In fairness to Henry, he was stuck splitting time with Murray, who really should have spent more of the season resting up than on the field. Murray had 184 carries of his own (and averaged only 3.6 yards per carry), which didn’t afford Henry enough snaps to truly gain steam. Since Murray was hurt seemingly every week, he would often sit out much of the fourth quarter, though, which is where Henry shined. Of Henry’s 744 rushing yards, 390 came in the final quarter, which makes you wonder why he wasn’t on the field more often in the first place.
While the Patriots are notorious for game-planning different running backs for different weeks, Lewis still got the majority of their carries in 2017, logging 180. Lewis was also able to catch 32-of-36 passes thrown his way for 214 yards and three touchdowns. And though James White was used a bit more than Lewis in the passing game in New England, Lewis figures to be the primary pass-catching option in Tennessee; Henry only had 11 catches on 17 targets in 2017.
A New Offensive Coordinator Should Result in More Running Back Targets
The passing game factors in heavily to this discussion because of new Titans offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur, who comes to Tennessee after just one year under Sean McVay with the Los Angeles Rams. Todd Gurley saw a whopping 87 passes thrown his way in 2017 under LaFleur’s watch.
Under the old coaching regime, Marcus Mariota didn’t throw to his running backs much; Henry and Murray were targeted just 12.9% of the time combined in 2017. In comparison, Gurley accounted for 16.8% of Rams targets last season. Lewis is a much more established pass catcher than Henry, so the introduction of LaFleur to the offense bodes well for him, especially in PPR.
Who Gets More Carries and Red Zone Work?
Gurley was a clear workhorse with the Rams, but this situation is obviously not the same. In fact, LaFleur recently told The Tennessean that the team sees Henry and Lewis as a 1A and 1B pairing. We will have to wait and see how that truly shakes out, but it’s not implausible to think that those labels stick for a while and both players see about 50% of the work.
Another major piece of this puzzle is what is going to happen in the red zone, where the Titans were a bit of a mixed bag last season. Due to Mariota’s astounding red zone efficiency (58 touchdowns and no interceptions in his career), the Titans managed to end up ninth in points per red zone opportunity despite finishing only 20th in red zone touchdowns overall.
If Lewis gets work in the red zone, it would go a long way to solidifying his fantasy value. Lewis converted 9-of-40 (22.5%) red zone touches into touchdowns in 2017 while Henry converted only 3-of-29 (10.3%).
Henry will get plenty of carries and likely won’t be disappearing any time soon, but given Lewis’ ability in the passing game and overall efficiency, my money is on Lewis being the Titans running back to own in 2018.
Pictured above: Dion Lewis
Photo credit: Christopher Hanewinckel – USA TODAY Sports