By Joe Pollock
One of the most hotly contested debates this offseason lies in the Tennessee Titans backfield. Derrick Henry finished off his 2017 campaign averaging 23 touches & 137 yards from scrimmage while scoring two touchdowns in his final three games (including playoffs) in DeMarco Murray’s (Torn MCL) absence. Just 54 days after their crushing loss to the defending Super Bowl Champion New England Patriots, the Titans informed Murray of his release. As Murray exited, Henry’s stock soared. Titans’ GM Jon Robinson stoked the hype-train fueling fires even further in late February when he said, “We are glad Derrick is on the football team and look forward to handing it to him, throwing it to him, and getting it in his hands so he can make yards.” The vacuum in the pass-catching role in the Titans backfield had speculating dynasty owners around the world scrambling to trade an arm and a leg for the 6’3” 247-pound behemoth of a young man. Even Rotoworld reported back on March 8th that “Following Thursday’s release of DeMarco Murray, third-year pro-Derrick Henry is now locked in as the Titans’ lead back.”
Enter Dion Lewis
On March 14th, the NFL free agency period went off with a bang. Kirk Cousins signed a record* $28 million a year deal. The Giants cleared a path for their eventual first-round pick by signing LT Nate Solder. The Bears gave the dynamic former Jags wideout Allen Robinson a three-year, $42 million payday. And the Titans ripped out the hearts of Derrick Henry hopefuls by giving Dion Lewis a four-year, $19.8 million contract; presumably to fill the pass-catching role in the Tennessee backfield. In the subsequent months, the fantasy community has tirelessly bickered and quarreled over what kind of split we’ll see on Sundays just off the east bank of the Cumberland River at Nissan Stadium. While a lot of opinions have been floated regarding the likely workload for these talented backs, I’ve yet to see a comprehensive by-the-numbers approach to breaking down this backfield.
As we begin to dive into the numbers, it’s important to note that the 2018 Titans coaching staff has roughly zero experience. Mike Vrabel was the Houston Texans defensive coordinator in name only, as the team dubbed 15-year HC and OC veteran Romeo Crennel their Assistant Head Coach.
In a June 5th presser, Titans new offensive coordinator Matt LeFleur referred to Derrick Henry and Dion Lewis as “1a and 1b” backs in his system. To gain some semblance of an idea regarding the expected workload for Tennessee’s ball-carriers, I’m going to dig deep into player histories for these coaching staffs and previous workloads for Henry and Lewis, albeit through the framework of less than parallel system history.
Coaching Tree History
In the absence of player usage history for Matt LaFleur and his offensive staff, it seems the only logical step forward is to analyze his coaching tree. Unfortunately, we’re going to have to go in a few branches to get any usable data due to Sean McVay’s nearly equally small sample size. So who was McVay’s mentor as an offensive mind and play caller? Kyle (and Mike) Shanahan. Using the tools made available by Addison Hayes on FFStatistics.com, I’ve compiled average running back one market share, target share, and fantasy finish for LaFleur, McVay, and the father/son Shanahan duo dating back to McVay’s start as an NFL coach in 2010. We could look at the Gruden coaching tree as well since McVay worked under Jay Gruden in Washington, but I think we can all agree that the LaFleur/McVay offense from 2017 looked a heck of a lot more like a Kyle Shanahan system than a Gruden system. Keep in mind these numbers are just a guideline. Every coach blazes his own trail. These numbers are merely a piece of the puzzle.
RB1 Market Share (48% is League Average**): 50.73%
RB1 Target Percentage (9% is League Average**): 7.6%
RB1 Average PPR Finish (19.99 is League Average**): 18.56
None of these numbers fall too far outside the norms for the average NFL coach. The RB1 Market Share of 50.73% is encouraging for whoever gets the lions share of the carries. The target percentage is a little less encouraging, but it’s also crucial to take into account the way the league is changing. Overall league average target share for lead pass-catching running backs in 2017 jumped 4.49% over the previous season. The numbers for this coaching tree reflect that trend. It’s not crazy to think that based on these numbers both backs could meet their draft value in 2017.
Skill Set & Usage Analysis
It’s evident to the average football fan that Derrick Henry will be the early-down back, and Dion Lewis will take the passing down work, but the typical running back duo in the NFL has substantial usage crossover. Things are rarely black-and-white. Look at Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. The casual observer could mistake Freeman for the early-down and short-yardage ball-carrier and Coleman for the passing down back, but in the two backs’ last year in the Shanahan system, Freeman beat Coleman in targets by 25! It’s examples like this that make digging into the numbers all the more necessary. I want to give a quick thanks to Warren Sharp at SharpFootballStats.com for the visuals in this section. This piece wouldn’t have been possible without the tools on his site.
Directional Success Rate
Again, I’m going to sound like a broken record here, but the sample size on this particular point of analysis is small. Neither Henry nor Lewis has ever accrued more than 200 carries in a single season, but the most significant single-season sample for both backs came in 2017. Take a look at these graphics representing 2017 directional success rate from SharpFootballStats.com:
Notice how one player’s chart has a significantly better success rate between the tackles, and one is marginally better outside them. Logic would tell us that the better between-the-tackles runner would be the back with the seven-inch, 52-pound height and weight advantage. Logic would be wrong. Lewis was, in fact, the better between the tackles runner in 2017.
Red Zone Success
Red Zone opportunity and success are paramount for fantasy football. Like it or not, touchdowns are still the name of the game when it comes to the difference between a usable week-in and week-out asset at the running back position and a matchup-based streamer.
|Derrick Henry||Opp 1-10||14||25||1.8||2||4||0||0||0||0||0|
|Dion Lewis||Opp 1-10||20||70||3.5||6||7||1||1||5||5||1||1||5|
These numbers aren’t even close. When we look at the raw stats, Henry was less efficient and got less opportunity across the board than did Dion Lews in 2017. Yes, the Patriots scoring offense–2nd in points, 4th in touchdowns (49) –was much better than the Titans–19th in points, 22nd in touchdowns (33). To expect a similar production profile for each player based solely on 2017 raw statistics would be foolish, so let’s dive into another set of data from Warren Sharp.
Red zone success rate is an excellent measure of real-world on-field efficiency. Though Lewis scored twice as many rushing touchdowns and averaged significantly more yards per carry, it was Derrick Henry that won out in successful play percentage. Henry’s 66% put him 2nd among all backs who garnered at least 20 red zone rushing opportunities, while Lewis’ still more than respectable 59% put him 9th. I mused early on this offseason that the Titans backfield could have a split between touches inside the five and outside the five yard line. This data supports that hypothesis.
Team Rushing Opportunity
The Tennessee Titans effectively abandoned the run in 2017. At 416 total RB touches, they ranked 30th in the league. Compare that to 477 total touches in 2016, and it’s no wonder Derrick Henry & DeMarco Murray owners alike were upset.
Before jumping to doom and gloom, let’s not forget this is an entirely new coaching staff, and we have data points for not only Matt LaFleur as the offensive coordinator with Sean McVay’s Rams, but also for McVay’s mentor, Kyle Shanahan in San Francisco. Both the Rams (513) and 49ers (502) were among the top ten teams in the league in RB touches at 9th and 10th respectively. It would be safe to expect a dramatic increase in RB touches for the Tennessee Titans in 2018.
During Derrick Henry’s two-year NFL career, he’s missed only one game due to a strained calf in November of 2016. His injury risk is minimal, or as minimal as it can be for a running back in the National Football League.
Dion Lewis’ history is not so cut and dried. Lewis has undergone three major surgeries to repair two serious injuries: a broken Fibula in the late summer of 2013 during the Eagles second preseason game, and a Grade 3 ACL Tear in Week 9 of the Patriots 2015 campaign. The latter injury required a second surgery in August of 2016 that delayed Lewis’ return to action until Week 11. Lewis also missed the entirety of the 2014 season after being cut from the Cleveland Browns’ and later the Indianapolis Colts’ rosters that year. Now 689 days removed from his last significant procedure, Lewis appears to have put his soft tissue issues behind him. That’s not to say the risk is gone, but the risk of reinjury for surgically repaired anterior cruciate ligaments drops precipitously after the first calendar year.
Passing Game Workload History
At this point, talking about the pass-catching abilities for these two backs feels almost obligatory. Derrick Henry is a semi-competent situational pass-catcher. He’s accrued a total of 32 targets and 24 receptions for 273
So what does it all mean?
If you decided to TL;DR all the stat-based analysis, this is where you should pick up reading again. I don’t pretend to know all the answers regarding the Tennessee Titans backfield in 2018, but following the extensive research it took to write this piece and the twists and turns that came along with it, I am ready to say I have enough information to make a judgment call.
When coaching history, skill set, usage, potential opportunity, and injury history are taken into account along with both Dion Lewis and Derrick Henry’s current 2018 PPR ADP, my advice in a 12-team league with at least six bench spots is to draft both. There’s no reason to reach on either at their current draft position or to be heartbroken if someone else does. Henry’s ADP at the top of the 4th round should provide value as an RB2 with matchup-based RB1 upside. Lewis’ ADP in the late 5th should be able to provide, at a minimum, matchup-based FLEX value in the majority of weeks. Neither player should be looked at as a must-own, but both should be looked at as players with relatively safe floors, and astronomical upside should the other go down with a severe injury. Keep in mind the third-string running back in Tennesse is 170 lb. rookie scat-back Akrum Wadley. As it stands today, July 11th of 2018, I am neither acquiring nor moving Lewis or Henry in dynasty formats. This situation should be a dream scenario for proponents of the Zero RB and antifragile strategies in redraft.
If I was forced to pick just one of these backs, the answer is the obvious one. Henry would be the choice for half-point and standard leagues. Lewis would be the choice for PPR. Both should see decent touchdown volume, but Lewis should undoubtedly be the primary pass receiver out of the backfield.
*Cousins record contract was short lived as Matt Ryan signed an extension worth $30 million in annual average salary less than two months later.
**League Averages based on 10-year sample.