The worst was confirmed Monday as the MRI performed on Derrick Henry’s injured foot indicated a broken bone and an extended absence from the football field. Henry suffered a Jones fracture which is a fracture on the bone of the fifth metatarsal. Henry had surgery to repair the fracture on Tuesday and the expected timeline for recovery is 6-10 weeks. All reports I’ve seen indicate a six-week recovery is overly optimistic and an expected eight-week absence would be more likely. The most likely scenario for Henry’s return would be Week 17 or Week 18 to get him back into game shape before the Titans make their playoff run, assuming they make it without their All-Pro rusher.
The Heir Apparent
That brings us to the question of who will replace Henry in the Titans backfield. The short answer is, “nobody.” Henry brings a set of skills to the position unmatched in the NFL today, but it could be argued his closest comparison in recent memory would be Adrian Peterson during the early part of his career. Perhaps coincidentally, that is exactly who the Titans signed on Tuesday and the expectation is that Peterson will absorb the majority of Henry’s workload once he familiarizes himself with Tennessee’s playbook. Peterson, who turned 36 earlier this year, was signed to the Titans’ practice squad with the intention of bringing him up to the 53-man roster. Peterson should fit in well with the type of offense Tennessee runs as he will get to operate out of an offense with a QB under center and Peterson deep in the backfield giving him some room to build up speed and set up blocks before hitting the line of scrimmage. Peterson was still productive as a member of the Lions last season as he totaled more than 700 yards and scored seven TDs in a limited role. Peterson still has the vision and balance to be an effective RB and should be able to produce in this offense assuming age hasn’t finally caught up to him.
The Maligned Prince
On Friday, Tennessee placed Darrynton Evans, the team’s third-round pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, on injured reserve, ending his season. That move opened the door for Jeremy McNichols to rest easy as the primary backup to Henry and provide value to the team as its primary receiving back. McNichols has been unable to stick with any team for more than a season until he landed in Tennessee as he had stints in San Francisco, Indianapolis, and Jacksonville prior. McNichols is not built to handle a large workload and struggles to find running room between the tackles because of his slight frame (5-9, 205 pounds) and Tennessee would have to overhaul the entire blocking scheme to play to McNichols’ strengths. I expect McNichols to continue to see the same workload he has through the first eight weeks with maybe a slight bump this week to give Peterson enough time to feel comfortable in the offense.
The Court Jester(s)
It’s expected for Peterson and McNichols to do their best to replace Henry’s production, but the wild card in this scenario just might be Tennessee’s other signee with Peterson – D’Onta Foreman. Foreman has struggled with injuries since being drafted by Houston in the third round of the 2017 NFL Draft as he has been held to just 17 games in his three years in the NFL. Tennessee is familiar with Foreman, however, as he was active for six weeks with the team last season seeing 22 carries for 95 yards. Foreman is a big back (6-1, 236 pounds) and is the type of back who can pound the ball into the line and help wear down a defense.
Dontrell Hilliard joins Foreman on Tennessee’s practice squad this week after seeing some special teams work in Week 8. Hilliard has flashed some upside throughout his three-year career but has yet to secure a consistent role with anybody. Hilliard is in the same mold as McNichols and works best as a player in space or on designed outside runs. It’s most likely Hilliard and Foreman are just emergency depth for the Titans and won’t see much playing time if any, but their presence means we at least have to account for them.
The King’s Court
It’s obvious Henry’s absence will impact the production of the RBs the most, but how will the team’s other skill position players be affected? The defense will have less to gameplan for with Henry out of the lineup as he was the focal point of every opposing defensive coordinator because of how much the offense runs through him. While the Titans might still skew run-heavy, it’s hard to imagine them continuing to run the ball 30+ times per game with Peterson, McNichols, and others. I suspect a bit more of the offense will fall on Ryan Tannehill and the passing game. A.J. Brown has been one of the best WRs in football the last few weeks with Julio Jones nursing a leg injury, but those two should also see a bump in production. The Titans might be forced to design short passes as an extension of the running game which might make the TEs a more-involved part of the offense. Tennessee has three TEs that rotate in and out of the offense in Anthony Firkser, Geoff Swaim, and MyCole Pruitt that might see more action.
The (Fantasy) Kingdom Under New Rule
I would make Peterson a priority pickup if he’s still available in your league. Even without seeing the number of carries that Henry typically did, Peterson still has the same ability to post RB2 or RB3 numbers weekly with an occasional RB1 week thrown in. Fantasy managers aren’t going to get the same production from any free-agent RB out there, but Peterson has the highest ceiling of those available in the majority of leagues. If I were to put a percentage of my FAAB budget towards acquiring Peterson, I think 30-50% would be about right. I’d not utilize much of my budget on McNichols as he’s likely to see only one week of increased production and, depending on how Peterson looks this week, might not even see that. Maybe 10-15% of my budget for McNichols as a “just in case” acquisition.
Foreman and Hilliard are speculative adds at best and might end up being more valuable to the Titans than to fantasy managers for the duration of Henry’s absence. Unless news comes out of Titans camp that either is seeing the majority of the first-team snaps, I’d avoid them unless you’ve got a large bench to stash them at the end of.
I suspect we’ll see a 10-15% increase in the number of passing attempts Tannehill has over his season average (32 per game), so an increase to 35 or 36 seems appropriate. More passing attempts will lead to more targets for Brown and Jones primarily. If Brown keeps performing as he has recently, he should be considered a solid WR1 going forward. Jones looked like he was going to play last week, so the chances of him playing this week are looking good. I don’t know if we can trust him fully yet, but if he plays a full game Jones could be a viable WR3 or Flex option going forward. The TEs are hard to project as they seem interchangeable and it’s a guessing game who will be the flavor of the week any week, but an extra target or two to a TE who seems to be distancing himself from the rest of the grouping might warrant some consideration.
For fantasy managers who suffered the Henry loss, I think he’s droppable in standard redraft leagues unless you have an open IR spot you can put him in. The likelihood of Henry returning to help you this year are slim at best and I wouldn’t worry about another owner scooping him up in a typical redraft league. Keeper and dynasty leagues are different and there is very little reason to drop him if he can be retained beyond this year. The injury, once fully healed, shouldn’t result in any decrease in performance. Henry seemingly suffered the injury in the first quarter against Indianapolis and played the rest of the game, so a fully healed foot shouldn’t pose any long-term negative effects.
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