Did Derrick Henry Steal DeMarco Murray's Job?
We knew it was coming, eventually.
Ever since the Tennessee Titans took running back Derrick Henry in the second round of the 2016 NFL Draft out of Alabama, it was clear he'd be their feature back before long, and on Sunday, the sophomore may have stolen DeMarco Murray's starting job.
At least, that's what it looked like, as a Murray nursed a hamstring injury on the sideline while Henry took over the game, hinting at his massive potential.
The Dawn of Derrick
Going into Jacksonville to take on a very good Jaguars defense was supposed to be a tough task. Jacksonville ranked 14th by our Adjusted Defensive Net Expected Points (NEP) per play metric in 2016 and built on that in Week 1 against the Houston Texans, piling up an interception and three fumble recoveries.
They looked just as dominant through the first half against the Titans in Week 2, with not a touchdown in sight well into the third quarter. But when Henry took over running back duties, he made things look effortless, bowling over multiple defenders on his first touchdown score of the season, a nifty 19-yard exhibit of power and speed.
Derrick Henry is slowly taking over the Titans backfield. pic.twitter.com/yBCJgGYh4y
— Terry Lambert (@TLambertFB) September 17, 2017
Henry made Jacksonville's defense look pedestrian, as he posted a career-high 92 rushing yards and a touchdown on just 14 carries for a spicy 6.6 yards per carry average.
Suddenly, an AFC South snoozefest was worth watching, not because it was a competitive game -- Henry helped make sure of that -- but because we may have witnessed the passing of the torch in Tennessee.
The real question now is if Murray’s injury is bad enough to open the door entirely for Henry. It's a tantalizing prospect because Henry has flashed what he can do if given the opportunity.
So far in 2017, among the 54 NFL running backs with at least 10 carries, Henry ranks first in both Rushing NEP per carry and Rushing Success Rate, the percentage of carries that added positive expected points to a team's total.
For context, here's a look at the eight most efficient backs in the league through two weeks, sorted by Rushing NEP per carry.
|Player||Carries||Rushing NEP/Carry||Rushing Success Rate|
Henry's elite efficiency is evident by the eye-test, too. That he's able to manhandle would-be tacklers so easily shouldn't be a surprise, considering he’s is built like a linebacker.
In addition to being 6'3" and 247 pounds, the 23-year old ran a 4.54 40-yard dash at the combine. Those wheels were on display on Sunday, as Henry beat defenders to the edge and brought his battering ram style between the tackles.
Clearly, Henry's future in the NFL is bright. So, has the future arrived? Or does Murray have something left to say?
Say It Ain’t So, DeMarco
Running back is a young man’s position. Not many make it to 30, never mind stay productive past that age.
The Titans surely had this in mind when they selected Henry in the NFL Draft last spring, but they brought the rookie along somewhat slowly last year.
Murray carried the majority of the load in 2016, handling a total of 346 touches to Henry's 123 touches. It was tough to make a case for ever taking Murray off the field, as his 1,624 total yards were the fifth-most in the league. Still, Henry looked good, averaging 4.5 yards per carry on his way to 490 rushing yards in his rookie season.
The 29-year-old Murray has been a productive for a long time, and a drop off wasn't in the cards. So far, that hasn't been the case, as Murray has been all but invisible, as he battles a hamstring injury which has hampered him since training camp. (And, in fantasy football terms, Murray's scored a total of just 11.8 PPR fantasy points through the first two games of 2017.)
For comparison's sake, here are Murray's efficiency numbers on just one more carry than Henry so far.
|Player||Carries||Rushing NEP/ Carry||Rushing Success Rate|
Admittedly, it's a limited sample size, so we don't want to go overboard after two games. But Murray's Rushing NEP per carry ranks him 45th out of the 54 running backs with at least 10 carries in 2017 -- 44 spots behind his teammate, the league leader in that category.
While the Titans insist Murray is still the starter, it seems likely he'll be listed as questionable on Friday's injury report. And even if he does suit up over the next few weeks, it's doubtful the Titans rest the fate of their running game entirely on Murray's balky hamstring.
Henry has proven to be efficient and productive in a limited role and is almost certain to see an increased workload in the weeks ahead as Murray nurses his injury. If he continues to perform miles above expectations, it could be tough for the Titans to take him off the field, regardless of Murray's health.