It's safe to say the Tennessee Titans would not be playing in the AFC Championship Game without either Ryan Tannehill or Derrick Henry. But neither player is under contract beyond this season, meaning the Titans have crucial decisions to make about the quarterback and running back who together make this offense go, whether their season ends on Championship Sunday or in Super Bowl LIV.
To me, it's a no-brainer that Tennessee should re-sign both Tannehill and Henry to long-term contracts this offseason, based on the performances of both players in 2019. That said, when I worked in the Cowboys' front office, if I wanted to keep a strong roster, I couldn't pay a player on past or even present highs -- rather, I had to look into the future and attempt to project whether the dollars allocated to a new deal would be money well spent. Even though we didn't have salary-cap considerations, we did have a budget to stick to, since franchises then weren't making nearly the type of money they are today. And I would boast that we did set an NFL record with 20 consecutive winning seasons. I've brought the same mindset to the question of what the Titans should do with Tannehill and Henry.
1) Sign them both to long-term deals
This could obviously be tricky to pull off on a number of levels, but here's a look at how to approach long-term deals with each player.
The case for signing Derrick Henry: There is no other running back in the NFL with the size-speed combo of Henry, who led the NFL this season in carries (303), rushing yards (1,540) and rushing touchdowns (16). Over his last eight games (including the playoffs), he's run for 159 yards per game, with the Titans going 7-1 in those contests (Henry missed the Week 16 loss to New Orleans with a hamstring injury). He's the first player in NFL history to post 180-plus rushing yards in consecutive playoff games, and he has clearly been integral to the Titans' current run, having generated 71 percent of their offensive yards in the Wild Card and Divisional Rounds. Knock on wood, but in his four NFL seasons, he has managed to avoid a major injury thus far.
Still, his pounding style doesn't lend itself to a long shelf life. Watching Henry plow through opposing defenses sparks fond memories of my friend, Hall of Famer Earl Campbell -- unfortunately for Campbell, the injuries that came from his bruising approach stymied his effectiveness after six NFL seasons. I hope a similar fate does not befall Henry, but the reality of the wear and tear of his role has to be taken into consideration by the Titans' front office. Henry also entered the NFL with a significant amount of mileage on his odometer, having rushed for 12,124 yards at Yulee High School in Florida and then another 3,591 yards in three years at Alabama, including his 395-carry, 2,219-yard Heisman Trophy-winning 2015 season.
There are exceptions to the rule, but running backs typically have shorter career spans. While the Titans can use the contracts signed by Ezekiel Elliott (six years, $90 million) last year and Todd Gurley (four years, $60 million) in 2018 as a guidepost, they do not provide an exact blueprint in terms of contract structure, given that Henry (26) is older than either player was when they signed their deals (Elliot is 24, and Gurley was 23 when he signed). He's also obviously on the verge of free agency, whereas both Gurley and Elliott had years remaining on their rookie contracts. I would try to stick to something like a three-year deal for $12 million-$13 million per year with performance-based incentives, especially in light of how injuries kept Gurley from contributing much in 2019. I would be willing overpay for Henry because of how crucial he's been to the Titans' success, but not by much.
The case for signing Ryan Tannehill: It is well known that I was a fan of Tannehill, who is a personal friend, when he was entering the 2012 NFL Draft, and my support for him hasn't wavered despite the bumps in Miami that led the Dolphins to trade the former No. 8 overall pick to Tennessee. And while I like Marcus Mariota and hoped he would emerge as a franchise quarterback, it's obvious that coach Mike Vrabel made the right decision to switch from Mariota to Tannehill midseason, sparking the run that the Titans are currently on. Tannehill proceeded to lead the NFL in regular-season passer rating (117.5) while throwing 22 touchdown passes against six picks in 10 starts. While his postseason numbers have been far from spectacular (15 of 29 for 160 yards and two touchdowns against zero picks), his performance harkens back to what Bob Griese used to do for the Dolphins' championship teams of the 1970s, making enough plays to help secure wins for a team carried by a strong running game and defense. Tannehill might not be throwing the ball much in January, but then again, he only needed six attempts against the Ravens to complete two touchdown passes, including a 45-yard deep shot, and give Tennessee all the lead it would need in a Divisional Round upset.
I'm well aware of Tannehill's struggles with the Dolphins, but it seems to me that he's enjoying a greater level of organizational stability with the Titans than he did in his latter seasons in Miami, when it wasn't clear what the plan was. As a former overachieving player himself (10 catches for 14 yards and 10 touchdowns in the playoffs!), Vrabel knows how to get everything he possibly can out of his charges, and Tannehill has thrived in the play-action-heavy attack commanded by coordinator Arthur Smith in Tennessee. Can Tannehill carry the offense in the air if an opponent -- say, Kansas City in the AFC title game -- manages to slow Henry and limit the effectiveness of the play-action passing game? It's hard to say, but the 31-year-old Tannehill has absolutely demonstrated the kind of poise you want to see in his postseason debut. In terms of compensation, Tannehill might not be in the Russell Wilson/Aaron Rodgers range (Wilson's latest extension was for four years and $140 million, while Rodgers' was for four years and $134 million), but I could see his number settling around $30 million annually over three years, with sizable guarantees.
2) Use the tag
As of now, with no new collective bargaining agreement set between the NFL and NFL Players Association beyond the 2020 season, all teams will have the option to use botha franchise tag and a transition tag on two separate players this offseason. If the Titans are unable to strike a deal with either Tannehill or Henry, they should use the tags to keep the QB-RB combo intact. If it comes down to tagging both, Tennessee should use the franchise tag on Henry and the transition tag on Tannehill. While the transition tag would leave open the possibility that another team might sign Tannehill to a mega-contract that the Titans can't or won't match, the reality is this is unlikely, given the strong quarterback class rising in the draft and the chance that some bigger-name quarterbacks will be available to quarterback-needy teams. It might seem counterintuitive, but I think the likelihood is greater that someone will exceed the Titans' tag on Henry, who could be a desirable final piece on an otherwise competitive roster.
3) Let either or both walk
While one never knows exactly how things will play out, this option is not advisable at this point. Without Tannehill, the Titans were a 2-4 outfit struggling to stay relevant in the AFC South. Without Henry, they'd have just 166 yards over two offseason games. Per Over the Cap, the Titans are currently projected to have plenty of space. Rather than searching for a quarterback or running back who fit with this offense as well as Tannehill and Henry do, why not keep a good thing going?
Whatever remains of the Titans' season could, obviously, change things, with injury and potential playoff heroics standing as factors that could alter the equation. But for right now, the team should try to lock up this winning combination for the long term.