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Derrick Henry's contract and the devaluation of the NFL running back

Maddie Meyer / Getty Images Sport / Getty

In what turned out to be a late surprise, the Tennessee Titans and star running back Derrick Henry agreed to a new deal right at Wednesday's deadline for franchise-tagged players to sign long-term contracts.

It's a deal that makes sense for both sides, considering the uncertainties of the coronavirus pandemic. But the details indicate yet again how devalued the running back position has become in today's NFL.

Henry's entering his fifth NFL season. He was slated to earn $10.28 million on the franchise tag. He signed on for maximums of four years and $50 million. But NFL contracts aren't always what they seem, and Henry's is a terrific example: He's getting $25.5 million fully guaranteed. In this situation, that's the number that matters.

Henry was last year's rushing champion with 1,540 yards. He also led the league in carries (303) and rushing touchdowns (16) in addition to averaging 148.7 yards per game in the Titans' three-game playoff run, which ended in the AFC Championship Game. But Henry's deal ranks just fourth among running backs in terms of total value, fifth in average annual value, seventh in total guarantees, and sixth in fully guaranteed money. There are multiple reasons for this.

First, there's the overarching impact of the pandemic, which has created a great deal of economic uncertainty for the league and complicated the ability of teams to plan financially for the future. In fact, including Henry's deal, teams have done fewer than 10 extensions with their own players since March 23.

One of those players was another running back: Christian McCaffrey of the Carolina Panthers, who got maxes of four years and $64.1 million, with $30.1 million fully guaranteed. But there are major differences between McCaffrey's and Henry's situations.

McCaffrey was a 2017 first-round pick with two years remaining on his rookie deal, including his fifth-year option; Henry was taken in the 2016 second round, and his rookie deal already expired. McCaffery also doubles as a pass-catching specialist whose 116 receptions ranked second in the NFL last season. Since he entered the league, in fact, McCaffrey has 60 more catches than any other running back and more than 400 yards more from scrimmage than any other player. Henry, despite being an exceptional ball carrier, has never caught more than 18 passes in a season. As a result, he was on the field for just 59% of the Titans' offensive snaps a year ago. McCaffrey, meanwhile, played 93% of Carolina's snaps.

The franchise tag limited Henry's bargaining power by tying him to the Titans, though based on recent trends, it's not clear what kind of market might have awaited him had he been able to hit free agency. His $10.28-million tag figure - though fully guaranteed - was also established according to a formula that's set according to his position. Which, for running backs, has been on the decline: According to Over The Cap, only three running backs - McCaffrey, Ezekiel Elliott, and Todd Gurley - have inked deals with more AAV at the time of signing than the $14 million Adrian Peterson got from the Minnesota Vikings way back in 2011. In other words, even though the salary cap has risen 65% since 2011, it still took seven years for any back to surpass the AAV threshold set by Peterson. And the three who did it were all re-signed by the team that drafted them.

McCaffrey is a shining example of the kind of value a multi-purpose player brings to a team in this era of positionless–like players. His compensation, however, is constrained by the soft collusion of the NFL's position-based pay system. Le'Veon Bell - another running back with the skill set and production of a quality wide receiver - attempted to take on this system two years ago by sitting out an entire season. It didn't work out for him.

The devaluation of NFL running backs is caused by several factors:

  • The rookie-wage scale, which denies young backs any bargaining power for up to four or five years, depending on whether they were drafted in the first round.
  • The physical grind of playing running back, particularly for workhorses who get 250 or more touches year after year - a factor that's compounded by the rookie scale, which robs backs of their earning power when they're still young and fresh.
  • Running backs tend to be replaceable. Remember how C.J. Anderson stepped in for an injured Gurley during the Los Angeles Rams' run to the Super Bowl a couple of years back? Or how James Conner did the same for the Pittsburgh Steelers when Bell sat out the season? Or how Austin Ekeler did it for the Los Angeles Chargers last year during Melvin Gordon's failed holdout? Etc.
  • The growing analytics trend that emphasizes the efficiency of passing the ball, which partly takes advantage of rule changes designed to protect quarterbacks and defenseless pass-catchers.

Gurley's 2018 deal with the Rams is instructive here. Though that contract was widely reported to be a max of four years and $57.5 million, Gurley wound up collecting $34.5 million over two years - thanks in part to a rolling guarantee that locked in a $7.55-million bonus for 2020 back in March 2019 - before injuries led to his release this spring. He since signed with the Atlanta Falcons for one year and $5.5 million. He'll turn 26 in a few weeks.

In 2017, ESPN's Mina Kimes wrote a story stating that "the average back’s rushing yards begin to fall off a cliff as soon as he turns 28; wide receivers, on the other hand, continue to perform at the same level until they turn 32." In January, Derrick Henry will turn 27.

Because he was tagged, Henry's bargaining position for a multi-year deal thus began with what it would cost the Titans to tag him a second time next year, when the tag figure would have to be 120% higher. As a result, the floor for any extension Henry might get would have been set at $22.6 million fully guaranteed ($10.28 million plus $12.34 million, or the cost of two tags). By securing $25.5 million, Henry wound up getting himself an additional $2.9 million, including the protection of two guaranteed seasons now, as opposed to the risk of going year to year.

But that's it. According to Pro Football Talk's Mike Florio, Henry's salaries for 2020 and 2021 are fully guaranteed, as is his $12-million signing bonus. But beyond that, if his production were to slip or if injuries were to derail him, he could be expendable: The structure of his deal means it would cost the Titans only a $6-million dead-money charge to cut him before 2022 - and that's simply accounting for money Henry already will have been paid.

At a time of great uncertainty, Henry got himself some security. But his deal is also another clear indication of the financial realities running backs now face relative to their peers.

Dom Cosentino is a senior features writer at theScore.

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