When the Tennessee Titans opted to ink reigning NFL rushing leader Derrick Henry to a four-year deal worth $50 million with $25.5 million guaranteed, there were doubts. Big running back contracts simply do not work out in the modern NFL. Countless thinkpieces have been written about the replacement value of running backs and how much easier it is to replace RB production on the cheap compared to other positions. Yes, Henry nearly single-handedly brought the Titans to the brink of the Super Bowl as a wild card team, but between all the aforementioned issues with running backs and Henry's extremely physical running style, it seemed Tennessee would be feeling buyer's remorse sooner rather than later.
They still might! But certainly not this year. Going against the recent trend of running back value, Henry is earning every dollar of that $12 million signing bonus he received this past spring. His salary this season is only $3 million, which is obviously a fantastic deal for Tennessee, but next year it'll leap to $10.5 million and will increase in the final two years of the contract. Eight-digit salaries do not work out for running backs in today's NFL.
Take this year, for example. Christian McCaffrey is making $16 million and has missed over half the season. Ezekiel Elliott is making $15 million and in the midst of the worst season of his career with a YPC lower than Wayne Gallman, who is making $825,000. David Johnson is making $13 million as the most average running back to grace the field in 2020. Joe Mixon clocks in at $12 million and hasn't played in nearly two months. Admittedly, Alvin Kamara has been very good for the Saints and he's making $15 million this season. But, like Henry, he is the exception to the rule.
And Henry has been even better than Kamara on the field and in terms of value to his team. He has two games with over 200 yards rushing and five games with multiple touchdowns. He has 1,532 yards on the ground already this season (1st in the NFL), his 14 touchdowns are tied for first in the league, and he ranks ninth in the league in YPC (5.0) despite ranking first in the league in attempts by a substantial margin.
Most importantly, those stats are leading to wins. The Titans have won every game in which he's rushed for at least 116 yards, and have yet to lose when Henry scores more than one touchdown. They've only lost one game when Henry averages over six yards per carry. When Henry is running well, the offense runs along with him. Ryan Tannehill is averaging 9.1 yards per play action pass, a full yard over his yards per attempt on the year, which can also be credited to Henry's effectiveness.
That is the most important justification for Henry's money. Tennessee is tied for the lead in the AFC South and Henry is the main piston in their engine. That's why they were happy to guarantee him over half his contract, and Henry has proven them right.