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What You Need to Know:
- Lewis set career highs in carries (180), rushing yards (896) and total TDs (9) in New England last year. He averaged 5.0 yards per carry and caught 32 balls.
- That earned him a 4-year, $20 million deal from the Titans, making Lewis the league’s 12th highest paid RB in terms of average annual salary.
- He’ll battle with Derrick Henry for carries, but Lewis is a strong bet to handle the majority of the pass-catching work.
The majority of folks are expecting Derrick Henry to serve as the clear lead RB for the Titans this season. His ADP sat in the early 4th round as RB18 as of mid-June. Lewis was going in the mid-5th as RB25.
We’re here to issue a big Lee Corso “not so fast!” on the Titans backfield.
Lewis vs. Henry
Let’s compare Lewis and Henry in terms of measurables, prospect profiles and NFL production.
Henry gets the nod in terms of size and athleticism. He checked into the 2016 Combine at 6’3, 247 pounds and earned a 79th percentile SPARQ score. Lewis isn’t nearly as freakish: 5’7, 193 pounds and a 37th percentile SPARQ score.
Henry also turned in the more impressive college career, averaging 6.0 yards per carry across 3 seasons at Alabama. That included a massive final season that saw him carry 395 times for 2,219 yards and 28 TDs. Lewis was no slouch either, though, with 2,860 rushing yards and 30 TDs on 5.3 yards per carry over 2 seasons at Pitt. He also totaled 52 catches for 405 yards and a score.
So Henry holds the edge in prospect profile. But Lewis gets the check marks for NFL experience and production. After 2 quiet seasons in Philly, he flashed by averaging 4.8 yards per carry and catching 36 balls in just 7 games for the Patriots in 2015. He posted 4.4 yards per carry and another 17 catches in 7 games the following year. Then came a true breakout in New England this past season. Lewis set career highs in carries (180), rushing yards (896) and total TDs (9). He averaged a sterling 5.0 yards per carry and caught 32 balls.
Henry’s pro production has been muted so far, playing behind DeMarco Murray the past 2 years. He averaged 4.5 yards per carry and scored 5 times on 110 totes as a rookie. Henry carried 176 times last year, but his yards per carry dipped to 4.2 and he scored a matching 5 TDs. Henry has also been used sparingly as a receiver, totaling 24 catches on 32 targets for 273 yards and 1 score over the past 2 years.
Of course, it can be tough to compare guys playing on different offenses behind different offensive line. Last year, for example, Lewis played on a Patriots offense that finished 1st in total yards, 2nd in points and 1st in Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Line Yards. Henry’s Titans squad ranked 23rd in yards, 19th in points and 23rd in Adjusted Line Yards.
Luckily, sites like Football Outsiders and Pro Football Focus can help us compare guys outside of their supporting casts. Football Outsiders’ DVOA ranked Lewis 2nd and Henry 21st in rushing efficiency last year. Pro Football Focus came to a similar conclusion, with Lewis finishing 6th in their rushing grades and Henry 17th.
It’s worth noting that Henry matched Lewis with 3.2 yards after contact per attempt, according to Pro Football Focus. That ranked 5th among 78 qualifying RBs. Lewis edged Henry in tackles avoided per attempt, ranking 3rd vs. Henry down at 13th.
Not surprisingly, Lewis earned better marks in the pass-catching department. He ranked 10th in FO’s receiving DVOA and 18th in PFF’s receiving grades. Henry finished 13th and 45th. Lewis was also a bit better in pass protection, besting Henry 6th to 12th in PFF’s rankings.
So by most measures, Lewis was the better player last year. He was rewarded with a nice 4-year, $20 million deal from the Titans that makes him the league’s 12th highest paid RB in terms of average annual salary. While Henry carries 2nd-round draft capital, it’s worth noting that Tennessee’s new coaching staff — led HC Mike Vrabel and OC Matt LaFleur — has no allegiance to him.
Of course, this isn’t an either/or situation. Both Henry and Lewis will play significant roles in this backfield this season. LaFleur described it as a "1A and 1B” situation in June.
“I feel confident in both those guys,” LaFleur said. “They both bring a little bit different qualities to what they do. ... We've got two brilliant backs that we are excited about.”
We’ll be closely monitoring training camp and preseason action for clues about how carries will be divvied between these 2. But it might be a situation where the workload is split differently from week to week.
What’s more certain is that Lewis will handle the majority of the pass-catching work. He’s been excellent in that facet over the past 3 seasons, hauling in 78.0% of his targets and averaging 8.2 yards per catch. His 6.39 yards per target ranks 13th among 36 RBs who saw 100+ total targets over that span.
The biggest concern with Lewis is durability. He has a long injury history, including a fractured fibula in 2013 and a torn ACL in 2015 that required 2 surgeries. And that’s despite just 4 career games with more than 15 carries. Lewis still needs to prove that his body can hold up as a lead back over a full season.
Draft Sharks Bottom Line:
We won’t have a great grasp on the Titans backfield until training camp and preseason action gets underway. And even then, there’s a chance this turns into a weekly guessing game. Lewis and Derrick Henry are both talented RBs who deserve to play significant ball-carrying roles.
Where Lewis holds the clear edge is in the pass-catching department. He’s totaled 85 catches and averaged 8.2 yards per catch over the past 3 seasons. Henry hasn’t topped 13 catches in any of his last 5 campaigns between Alabama and Tennessee.
That makes Lewis the choice here in PPR leagues, especially considering he’s coming cheaper than Henry in drafts. Henry sits a bit higher in our non-PPR rankings, but that’s subject to change throughout August.