NASHVILLE, Tenn. — OTAs have just begun for the Tennessee Titans but we already know who has the edge to start at running back in Miami against the Dolphins on Sept. 9.
The team parted ways with three-time Pro Bowler DeMarco Murray this offseason, clearing the way for Heisman trophy winner Derrick Henry to assume the starting role. But, instead of addressing the position in the NFL Draft, general manager Jon Robinson opted for a high-profile free agent with a championship pedigree and a strong desire to prove his mettle.
Enter Dion Lewis.
Tennessee signed the 27-year old Lewis to a four-year, $19.8 million contract this March. Only four backs are scheduled to make more in 2018, per spotrac. The seven-year veteran is short in stature (5-8, 195 lbs.); he comes to Nashville by way of the New England Patriots and a scheme that often utilized his position as a receiving threat out of the backfield. The optics said that the Titans had paid a premium for a pass-catcher to compliment the hulking (6-3, 247 lbs.) Henry, who would hammer the line of scrimmage on early downs. But, was the skill set really worth the cost?
Yes, because, as numberFire’s Justin Freeman points out, you need only remove the stereotypes to have a deeper understanding of what the acquisition means.
Myth: Dion Lewis is a passing down back and Derrick Henry is an early down thumper.
Reality: This is completely stereotyped by their height/weight. Lewis has always been a 1st down runner. Dion Lewis is not James White. Derrick Henry is not Legarrette Blount.#Titans pic.twitter.com/QTlRSBidEU
— Justin Freeman (@JustinFreeman18) May 8, 2018
Freeman’s graphic dispels the aforementioned notion that the two running backs’ roles are dictated by their physical attributes. But how will that unfold under new offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur in Tennessee? To help determine which rusher holds the edge in the new scheme, I enlisted the help of predictive NFL analytics expert Warren Sharp of SharpFootballAnalysis.com.
Out of 49 qualified running backs with at least 175 carries over the past two seasons combined, only two registered at least 4.5 yards-per-carry (YPC) with a success rate of at least 53%, according to Sharp: Lewis and Ezekiel Elliott of the Dallas Cowboys. Lewis’s effectiveness is reinforced by Football Outsides in their examination of the position lastseason.
It is important to remember that, according to Football Outsiders, a player’s true value can be measured by the level of performance he provides above a replacement level baseline, determined by what would happen if the starter’s carries, in the case of a running back, were given to his replacement (typically, the lesser of the two players). For example, a look at Tennessee’s running back situation in the 2017 campaign would show you that Henry was able to do more with the carries he was given than Murray was and, thus, the former had the higher DVOA despite not being named “starter” by the team.
Still with me?
Where Henry ranked 22nd in DYAR (54) and 21st in DVOA (-1.4%) out of 47 qualified players, Lewis led the position in DYAR (271) and placed 2nd in DVOA (27.4%). Offensive line play obviously factors into these outcomes for running backs and the Titans starting five was appreciably worse than New England’s in their respective measurements during 2017 and the situational effect that good (or bad) coaching can have on these figures cannot be overstated. Sharp’s analysis further illustrates, though, why Lewis will likely have more success under LaFleur.
All coaches have tendencies and LaFleur, despite not calling the plays as the coordinator for the 2017 Los Angeles Rams, showed offensive trends too strong to ignore.
Head coach Sean McVay called the plays for the NFL’s highest-scoring offense in Los Angeles, even going so far as to assist quarterback Jared Goff in audibling through the coach-to-quarterback helmet communication system. But LaFleur’s influence on the schematic design should not be dismissed. No team operated in 11 personnel (3 WR, TE, RB) more than the Rams last season (81% of their total offensive plays). During his stint with the Atlanta Falcons, LaFleur was a member of the staff that ran 24% of their offense in 21 personnel (2 RB, 2 WR, TE) featuring a flexible tandem of running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, who could split out and present match-up problems as a receiver.
What makes Lewis so deadly is that his schematic adaptability lends itself well to LaFleur’s offensive tendencies. Over the past two seasons, he rushed for an average of 4.1 YPC with a success rate of 55% out of 11 personnel, 4.7 YPC at 55% success out of 12 (RB, 2 WR, 2 TE) and 5.3 YPC at a rate of 60% success out of 21 personnel, per Sharp. When the Patriots flexed Lewis out as a receiver in 21 personel over the last two seasons, Sharp notes that the running back boasted a 69% success rate, 7.2 yards-per-average and passer rating delivered of 122. “(Lewis’s) overall success rate (56%) was 7% better than the collective Patriots backfield apart from him,” says Sharp.
Lewis is quite literally the “versatility” (drink) personified that Robinson appears to value above all else. So, where does that leave Henry?
Here’s the 2 RBs & how their respective offenses used them the last 2 years by personnel grouping w their efficiencies. Lewis has the CLEAR edge in primary groupings of 11, 12 & 21. Henry was DOMINANT in 13. (LaFleur’s Rams ran from 13 just 5% of runs)https://t.co/8chLDrmiRt pic.twitter.com/ePeVN4ONUc
— Warren Sharp (@SharpFootball) May 10, 2018
The third-year pro figures to still play a large role in Tennessee’s game-planning under the new regime of coach Mike Vrabel and LaFleur; this is simply a case for why Lewis makes more sense as the starter.
With a power back like Henry, the primary focus should be on his value above replacement. If a running play is designed to get the offense “X” amount of yards, how much more is the back capable of getting additionally? If he is more reliant on perfect execution and blocking, does he possess the passing-game tangibles necessary to provide added competitive advantage? It all comes down to how well the back fits the team identity and scheme. The clichéd school of thought that preaches “running backs can be found anywhere,” at one time, may have been true. But, an individual that brings an additional dimension to an offense should never be trivialized.
The numbers indicate that the Titans have found that auxiliary element in Dion Lewis and that, barring injury, he should be LaFleur’s featured running back in 2018.