Fantasy Football: Dion Lewis Will Form a Terrific Tandem With Derrick Henry
By signing Lewis, the Titans moved quickly to secure an impact player who could shoulder a portion of the 223 touches that recently-released veteran DeMarco Murray accounted for a year ago. It's a quality acquisition and one that delivers to the Music City an electric player with considerable playoff experience who remains firmly in his prime.
With that said, the signing of Lewis isn't being met with universal enthusiasm. Indeed, if you were hoping for a true breakout season from Titans' running back Derrick Henry, this newly-formed committee probably isn't your cup of tea. By bringing Lewis into the mix, it essentially guarantees that Henry won't receive anything more than a two-down workload, and even that might be a generous estimate.
The Titans didn't award Lewis $11.5 million in guarantees to be a mere third-down back. There's no question he will receive a sizable piece of the rushing pie. And he should.
Lewis was one of the most efficient rushers in the NFL a season ago, according to numberFire's Net Expected Points (NEP) metric. NEP employs historical down-and-distance data to determine what is expected of a player on a per-play basis. Positive NEP is earned when a player increases his team's expected points for the drive, and negative NEP is indicative of sub-standard performance.
Among the 72 running backs who received 50 or more carries in 2017, Lewis' Rushing NEP per carry tally of 0.16 was third best in the league behind only Alvin Kamara and Aaron Jones. Meanwhile, Henry's total of -0.04 Rushing NEP per carry was tied for 29th in this same group.
Lewis also ranked first in total value among all qualified NFL runners in Football Outsiders' Defense-Adjusted Yards Above Replacement (DYAR) metric, whereas Henry ranked 22nd. Add all of this to the fact that Lewis averaged a sparkling 5.0 yards per carry in 2017 while Henry averaged a more modest 4.2, and you arrive at a simple conclusion: Lewis was a much superior runner to his new teammate in every possible measurement.
Of course, the Titans remain excited about both of their runners, as each player has demonstrated the ability to create yardage that ranks among the best in the league.
2017 NFL regular season leaders in yards after contact per attempt:
1. Dion Lewis - 2.611
2. LeGarrette Blount - 2.607
3. Derrick Henry - 2.528
Sup, #Titans ?
— Mike Clay (@MikeClayNFL) March 14, 2018
The Titans' offense is going to be interesting in 2018. In spite of a down 2017 season, big things are still expected of quarterback Marcus Mariota. The Titans have a strong complement of playmakers in the passing game with Rishard Matthews, Delanie Walker, and potential breakout sophomore Corey Davis in the mix.
While the days of "exotic smashmouth" may be in the rear-view mirror, it doesn't mean the Titans will shy away from the ground game. New offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur has worked under Mike and Kyle Shanahan, Gary Kubiak, and Sean McVay over the course of his career and has been on staff with the top-ranked NFL offense (the Atlanta Falcons in 2016 and Los Angeles Rams in 2017) in back-to-back seasons. That's a pretty strong pedigree.
In LaFleur's final season with the Falcons, he saw first-hand how effective a two-back system can be as the franchise leaned heavily on Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman to propel them to a Super Bowl appearance.
In Henry and Lewis, he has two runners who complement one another exquisitely. The 6'3", 247-pound Henry is a bruising, punishing runner with straight-line speed to spare, while the 5'8" Lewis is a quick and shifty, tackle-evading machine who excels in pass-protection and as a receiver. It's a fantastic set-up for the Titans, but it's less than ideal for the fantasy community.
Lewis is a considerable upgrade to an offense looking to re-invent itself. There's little doubt he's in for a significant workload in 2018, but how that will affect his fantasy value is a different matter altogether. After all, he was so successful a year ago because of his incredible efficiency as both a runner and a receiver (91.4% catch rate).
Even if we assume he will remain in the neighborhood of the 212 total touches he saw in 2017 (which is far from a lock), his efficiency is certain to take a hit now that he's outside the confines of the Patriots' elite offense.
Henry, on the other hand, is clearly not someone the coaching staff felt was ready for a featured role. With only 32 targets over his two NFL seasons and unproven pass-blocking ability, perhaps that reticence is justified. Still, there are very few true featured runner in the NFL today, and there's no reason to assume the Titans can't feed both of their immensely talented tailbacks.
As of right now, Lewis looks like a high-end flex option with RB2 upside in points per reception (PPR) formats while Henry settles into RB2 status in his own right. Both runners are brimming with upside, but with rookie head coach Mike Vrabel and a first-time play-caller at the helm, it's impossible to accurately project how the workload will be divided until we have more tangible evidence.
As of now, Henry remains the favorite to function as the lead back, but this has the look and feel of a full-blown committee. It will be intriguing to watch this situation unfold during training camp.