The contract extension for a star running back coming off his rookie deal has become one of the most difficult negotiations in the NFL. Teams are fully aware of the relatively short shelf life for star running backs, and of the fungibility of players at the position, and so most do not want to shell out big money -- even for high-level contributors. But the players are aware of those dynamics as well, and so they want to be paid earlier, and at as high a level as possible, because they know that specific negotiation could be their one chance to cash in.
Some teams eventually break and deliver the high-dollar extension. The Rams paid Todd Gurley; they regretted it soon after. The Cowboys paid Ezekiel Elliott; they don't regret it yet, but the deal also hasn't even started yet, and it's already been restructured. The Panthers paid Christian McCaffrey; they might have a roster too devoid of additional talent to really regret that one, but it's unlikely he'll live up to the price tag.
It's in this environment that the Tennessee Titans elected to use the franchise tag on star running back Derrick Henry, rather than offer him an extension. Henry signed his tag earlier this offseason so he will play for the Titans in 2020, but beyond that, there are question marks. Per the most recent reports, Henry and the team are not close to an agreement on a long-term deal. However, coach Mike Vrabel implied that even if they were close, we might not hear about it publicly.
"Derrick signed his franchise tender, he's under contract," Vrabel told NFL Network. "I know that Jon (Robinson) and (VP of football administration) Vin Marino have been in contact with his reps. Having been involved with the NFL for a lot of years, getting deals done is about being patient, hopefully keeping them private and confidential. So I'm going to try to respect that, and understand that we love Derrick and he understands how important he is to our football team. Again, his leadership that grew last year, I'm looking forward, I know our team is looking for more of that this year."
Robinson, meanwhile, had his own explanation. The Titans' general manager indicated that the salary-cap uncertainty caused by the coronavirus pandemic has affected contract negotiations, and though he did not mention Henry by name, it's not difficult to read into his comments that it has affected Henry's talks as well.
"I'm a big analogy guy," Robinson said, per longtime Titans beat writer Paul Kuharsky. "It's no different than if I was if I was working for Pepsi or Coke, and I knew that we weren't going to have as many sales. ... You wouldn't go out and buy a new house. I don't know what that's going to look like. It's something that we will certainly talk about. You know, we've talked to the players and the reps. There's a lot of uncertainty right now with everything, and I would say certainly with the salary cap too, because we've got to be mindful. What you don't want to do is do something and then you've got to undo it or try to unpack it a year two years from now, given the uncertainty of the salary cap."
Whatever happens, Tennessee is in pretty decent position with Henry here. The Titans can keep Henry on the tag this season, then decide whether or not to do a long-term deal next year. They can even use the tag a second time, delaying the decision another year. Henry would make out pretty well in such a scenario as well, garnering $22,611,600 in fully-guaranteed salary over the two-year period, making him one of the highest-paid backs in the league. The long-term security he presumably wants would not be there, but he'd get a nice payday as a consolation prize.