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Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry was on pace to shatter multiple NFL records in 2021. He likely would have attempted the most rushes in a season and become the first player to break the 500-touch threshold, rush for more than 2,000 yards in back-to-back seasons and become the first running back since Walter Payton in 1980 to lead the NFL in rushing attempts for four consecutive seasons.
Then, Henry broke his foot.
The injury requires surgery and the Titans didn't give Henry a timetable to return. Some say he could return as early as Week 16 or 17, others think it's closer to the AFC championship weekend if the Titans make it that far. Regardless, it's a devastating blow to both the Titans' seasonal aspirations as well as Henry's quest to become arguably the most unstoppable running back in NFL history.
Henry appeared indestructible up until this injury. The hulking 6-foot-5, 250-pound running back had the power of a freight train and the speed of a Bugatti and missed just one game since 2016. He had already tallied 1,091 total yards on 237 touches and 11 touchdowns – all of which led the league. It's unclear exactly where or when the injury occurred in the Titans' Week 8 overtime win over the Indianapolis Colts, but if Henry suffered a Jones fracture – a break on the fifth metatarsal – on his right foot, it was likely due to overuse and stress on the bones rather than one instance.
Including the playoffs, Henry touched the ball 1,064 times in only 43 games since 2019. That usage certainly contributed to his injury, but Henry was built to sustain this type of workload and dominate. His size, speed and training regimens are tailor-made to run through today's defenses.
The average weight of a starting NFL linebacker dropped seven pounds since 1999, from 245 pounds to just 238 pounds this season. While this doesn't seem like a lot, it's played a significant role in Henry's ability to both run through and past defenders during his time in the league. Former NFL running backs Eddie George and Brandon Jacobs observed this trend, too.
"They're like defensive backs playing in the box," George told Yahoo Sports before Week 8. "So they're not built to stop power."
"When I was playing, we had Jeremiah Trotters of the world, the Brian Urlachers, there was Ray Lewis, guys like that — 240, 245, 250 pounds coming downhill to stop the run," Jacobs said. "Those guys don't exist in the NFL anymore."
What's now key for Derrick Henry after injury
Henry's foot injury doesn't change these inescapable facts. It'll affect his production for this season, but a healthy Henry would remain arguably the most dominant running back in the league.
The next phase of his return will be how he heals and trains. That's where Melvin Sanders comes in; he's been building offseason workout schedules for Henry since 2017 with an emphasis on building lean muscle mass, mobility exercises in legs, shoulders and spine as well as recovery work without putting unnecessary strain on Henry's body.
"Over the years, he just worked tirelessly on that [regimen]," Sanders told Yahoo Sports prior to Week 8. "Like year-in and year-out, just to make sure that he's getting healthy with his recovery, he's got good nutrition, got a private chef. And with the mobility and the movement work that we do as well, make sure sure the body stays optimal and lean as he can be."
Though it's still unclear if Henry will return in 2021, he proved two things this season: He's human after all and he's still one of the most dominant rushers in NFL history. How Henry bounces back from adversity in the wake of a serious injury will be crucial to his standing among the league's best players.
Henry's short-term replacement
Almost immediately, the Titans found someone to possibly replace Henry in the backfield. Tennessee added Adrian Peterson to the roster Monday, a running back who's enjoyed a similar career as Henry. Peterson has also led the NFL in rushing attempts and yards in the past, suffered and returned from a serious lower-body injury and averaged a wild workload over the past 15 seasons. Peterson averaged 19 touches per game, while Henry averages 17 touches per game.
It wouldn't be surprising to see the Titans deploy Peterson similarly to Henry. The 36-year-old saw upwards of 15 touches a game through the first 12 games of the 2020 season for the Lions before D'Andre Swift took over in the later portion of the year. Peterson isn't Henry by any means – both in size, running style and age – but his experience in these types of bell cow situations is huge for the Titans and potentially even great for Henry as a mentor.
Plus, how often do you see two generational players at the same position on the same roster?