What's Going to Happen in the Tennessee Backfield? - Footballguys

The Footballguys staff offers thoughts on the Tennessee running back situation

Tennessee has one of many backfields where the roles are not clearly defined. Since running back is one of the most important positions in fantasy football, it's wise to get as clear a picture as possible on every backfield.

When DeMarco Murray was let go in the offseason, the fantasy world flocked to Derrick Henry. But Dion Lewis was brought in. Are the Titans still a two-headed committee backfield? What kind of split do you envision in Tennessee?

Simpkins: The personnel moves and comments from coach indicate the Titans are trying to model their backfield after New England’s, which is more of a committee. One would think that would make production unpredictable, but studying the Patriots backfield closely gives some insights about how Henry and Lewis may be used. In most games, New England had a back who got the majority of carries, a back who caught most of the passes, and another back or two that got a few carries. Looking at the skillsets of Titans runners, I believe Henry will be the primary ball carrier, Lewis will be the primary pass catcher, and Wadley and Fluellen will get a few touches and targets here and there. These dynamics and the price paid in drafts make Lewis the back to own here, but be aware that he is not going to post RB1 numbers in this situation. He’s better taken as a reserve with upside if the offense is as markedly improved as we believe it will be.

Tefertiller: I am staying away since I do not have faith either back can stay healthy. We all too quickly forget Lewis' injury woes in Cleveland and Philadelphia.

Knotts: I disagree with the Patriots reference here as while Vrable comes from that system, Matt LaFleur has a different philosophy than the Patriots running back by committee. LaFleur comes from the Shanahan coaching tree which historically has had one running back as the lead guy and then a complimentary back.

Assuming Henry can adapt to the zone-blocking scheme, I envision this similar to the 2016 Atlanta backfield with Henry serving as the Devonta Freeman primary role and Dion Lewis serving as the Tevin Coleman type role as the third-down/change of pace running back.

Tefertiller: I concur with Knotts in that Lewis should be viewed as the complementary back.

Simpkins: Whether or not one believes the system will be more like the New England’s or Atlanta’s doesn’t change the outcome because the dynamics are similar. The work will be split and it will take away value from both the pass catcher and the rusher. Lewis is the more valuable of the two based on investment versus output, but neither are options that an owner should count on to be the starter for their team.

Knotts: I would argue both have value as starters instead of neither. Look at 2016 in Atlanta -- both running backs were in the Top 20 in PPR. We all saw what LaFleur was able to do with Todd Gurley last year which makes me excited about both Titans running backs.

Simpkins: Gurley didn’t have to split carries and neither Henry or Lewis are on the same level in terms of talent. I could see this going more like Tevin Coleman and Devonta Freeman’s timeshare went last year— where both backs have value, but only the Coleman role meets or exceeds the expectations of most fantasy owners. That would be Lewis in this case.

Waldman: While I understand Knotts' point about looking at the history of the coaching staff and how they used the position in the past, one must consider the strengths and weaknesses of personnel. We can't presume that the coaching staff will automatically do the same thing it did somewhere else if the pieces have different strengths and weaknesses.

Derrick Henry is agile enough for his size but not necessarily agile enough for anything more than an inside zone scheme. If he's asked to run outside zone, that could be a little troublesome. It would good for Henry if they ran more gap plays (traps, counters, and power) so he could use that big frame and build-up speed to get downhill and without much stop-start with his feet to set up one of the multiple creases that are part of a zone scheme.

The zone scheme is Dion Lewis' game and he'd be the ideal outside zone back in this offense. So if we're thinking that Atlanta's ground game is the template for Tennessee's running game, then Lewis would be more like Freeman and Henry more like the change-up in the red zone and short yardage that we saw from Coleman earlier in his career as he learned how to run outside zone with greater effectiveness than he did at Indiana as a boom-bust runner who won with his athletic advantage more than his decision-making.

However, I don't think you guys are arguing that Tennessee is using an outside zone scheme as much as you are noting how the timeshare would break out. In that sense, I agree with Knotts that it will be a timeshare. The game script will be a big dictator of usage and I think the Titans defense is just bad enough that Lewis will be the guy to own due to his prowess in the passing game.

Ingel: Agreed.

Parsons: Derrick Henry is one of the most interesting redraft and dynasty running backs. He has prototypical size (and then some) plus a quality college and NFL Draft pedigree. However, he has mired as the RB2 behind a high-level back in DeMarco Murray...until this offseason.

Tennessee had a need for running back depth this offseason (few can name David Fluellen as the RB3 on the depth chart), but they splashed the free agent pot with a big contract (relative to the position) with Dion Lewis.

Lewis will start the season with a 1A role. However, he will underperform and get hurt by October. The Patriots have a history of maximizing their running backs' utility and Lewis also had a short burst of durability where his entire career has been marred by missing time. Henry will be one of the "Should I drop him?" questions early in the season as Lewis is getting more touches in shallow redraft leagues. However, Henry will inherit a dominant market share of the backfield - by default - midseason and be an RB1 for the fantasy stretch run.

Alexander: The Titans ran the ball 27.2 times per game last year. There isn't a whole lot of room for the pie to grow regardless of who is calling plays in Tennessee or what type of plays they are calling.

The team didn't sign Lewis for nearly $5 million per season to use him strictly on passing downs, which means we're right back to where we started in 2016 with the Titans timeshare backfield -- waiting for someone to get hurt.

Under normal circumstances, Parsons has the right idea -- draft Henry, wait for Lewis to get hurt again, enjoy RB1 numbers, win championship. But when we were playing this game with DeMarco Murray as the lead back, Henry was available in the mid-to-late sixth round of fantasy drafts. This year, he's being drafted in Round 3, almost as if Lewis had never signed. Drafting Henry at the expense of potential WR1s going in the same range (Mike Evans, Doug Baldwin, and Josh Gordon) feels all sorts of wrong.

Lewis is now the one being taken in the sixth-round, which is an appropriate price for a player you're counting on as a flex starter with high week-to-week volatility. Henry shares the same weekly flex appeal due to his presumed role at the goal line, but drafting him with a premium pick under the assumption Lewis gets hurt is just as likely to bite you as it is to pay off.

Wood: Lewis picked a good time to finally stay healthy, but regardless of what you think of him as a player, his injury history has to be a burning, red flag. And if you want to pretend last year means his health risks are behind him, you need to turn your attention to the other major elephant in the room — he’s leaving New England. Few football minds are as good at “knowing when to fold ‘em” as Belichick. He’s more than willing to let players go, even if they’re key team icons, and Lewis never reached that level of importance. How many Patriots players have left New England and been as good or better? I’ll wait why you comb the box scores and come up empty. An insanely bad injury history and the post-Patriots degradation are enough for me to stay far, far away from Dion Lewis at his current price tag. Which makes me bullish on Derrick Henry. From my vantage, he’s one of the most intriguing picks at his draft position. He could, and should, get a workhorse role for a team that’s hoping to keep Mariota healthy by handing the ball off a ton. Sign me up.

Henry: Well said, Wood.

Hicks: The Tennessee Titans have a backfield that has numerous question marks attached to it heading into the 2018 season. Derrick Henry appears to be tracking nicely heading into his third season, but there should be legitimate concerns about the change in coaching staff and the effect on its projected lead runner. Dion Lewis will enter his eighth year in the league and onto his fifth team. He has missed a total of at least 53 games, including two full seasons. The anomaly is the 2017 season with the Patriots where he played every game.

Behind these two players is a whole lot of nothing. With DeMarco Murray still unsigned, is it possible that he returns? This becomes an issue if there are concerns in training camp with either Henry or Lewis. On the negative side both of the expected starters could underwhelm their expectations from fantasy owners, but in reality, both look to be solid options in the RB2, RB3 market.