A Deep Dive into the Titans Backfield

I’ve been a fan of Dion Lewis ever since his breakout with the Patriots back in 2015. Lewis earned his initial opportunity in week 1 of the season thanks to a suspension to starter LeGarrete Blount. Lewis capitalized with 120 yards on 19 touches and from then on was a key cog in the Patriots offense. In his first 7 games of the season, Lewis compiled 622 scrimmage yards, 4 touchdowns, and 36 receptions, amounting to almost 17 PPR points per game. Many people, however, assumed that Lewis was simply a product of the Patriots system. When he tore his ACL in November most people seemed ready to move on. Lewis would be replaced by Bellicheck’s next man up and that would be the end of Lewis’ career as a genuine fantasy asset.

Lewis, however, was not just a product of the Patriots system. Lewis is a fantastic receiver and one of the most elusive players in the entire league. In 2015, Pro Football Focus tweeted that Lewis was effectively “breaking the scale” that they had built to measure a players ability to force missed tackles.

To be fair, a serious knee injury could be a problem for somebody who relies so heavily on his elusiveness. And in fact, when Lewis did return midway through the 2016 season, it did take him a few weeks to regain significant playing time. Despite James White starring late in the season and the Super Bowl in particular, Lewis showed enough to confirm he wouldn’t go away quietly.

And in 2017, despite still sharing backfield work with James White and Rex Burkhead, Lewis proved his talent was still here. He totaled 1100 scrimmage yards and 9 touchdowns. This time, however, nearly all of his production came on the ground. While Lewis’ receiving prowess was what made him a know commodity, he was now displaying workhorse like qualities. In the last 2 weeks of 2017 he compiled 50 carries for 222 yards with another 64 yards coming on 11 catches. His elusiveness hadn’t left him either. He once again led PFF’s elusiveness rating for backs with 165 attempts or more and finished rated the 5th best RB in the league by their rankings.

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All this is just a really long way of saying that Dion Lewis isn’t a product of the Patriots system. Dion Lewis is just really good at football. And the Titans front office clearly agrees. When Lewis hit free agency, Tennessee pounced and signed him to a 4 year deal worth up to $23 million with $11.5 million guaranteed. This is a pretty sizable commitment for a veteran RB on the free agent market and it brings him into direct competition with Derrick Henry for touches.

Henry, himself, has a pretty solid resume behind him as well. He won a Heisman Trophy in 2015 at Alabama, while Lewis was busy breaking out in the NFL. That was followed up by the Titans drafting Henry with an early second round pick in the 2016 NFL draft. Many expected the massive Henry to be a star at the next level but the Titans chose to give the ball instead to veteran DeMarco Murray for the next two seasons. Henry flashed when he played totaling over 1200 rushing yards through his first two seasons, but he could never overtake Murray for the starting job even as Murray hobbled through injuries. After flashing yet again, this time as the Titans lead back towards the end of last season, many expected Henry’s time had finally come. His dynasty value just kept growing. And then the Titans signed Lewis.

  • So what do we make of this situation?
  • Are either worth investing in?
  • Are both?
  • What can we expect?

Let’s take a look.

Since new Titans head coach Mike Vrabel is a former linebackers coach and defensive coordinator, the Titans new offensive look will likely come from new offensive coordinator Matt LeFleur. LeFleur was most recently the offensive coordinator with the LA Rams. Although he didn’t call plays there, our best bet at how the Titans offense will operate is to look to what LeFleur and Rams coach Sean McVay did last season.

Thankfully the teams have some similarities on offense. Both have young QBs who struggled in the season to LeFleur coming to town, and solid WR groups that lack a proven #1 receiver. Both also have plenty of talent at RB, although obviously the Titans’ comes in the form of two players rather than one.

Last season the Rams attempted 518 passes, while the Titans tried 496. The Rams targeted their RBs 101 times last season with Todd Gurley catching a team high 64 passes on 87 targets. The Titans meanwhile target RBs on 65 passes with 17 of them going to Henry who caught 11 of those targets. Despite the fact that Henry nearly equaled Murray in carries the Titans trusted Murray with three times as many targets. As talented as Henry may be, he is not likely to be the focal point of a passing game. Lewis on the other hand is clearly meant to fill this role.

Using the 2017 Rams as our model, I feel comfortable predicting at least 80 targets to the RBs in Tennessee. If three times as many go to Lewis as do Henry we’d be looking at 60 targets to Lewis and 20 to Henry. At his career catch rate and yards per catch, this gives Lewis a receiving floor of 47 catches and nearly 400 yards. While they may not look amazing, it’s a conservative estimate.

In the running game Lance Dunbar and Malcolm Brown combined for 74 carries backing up Gurley last season. It’s safe to assume that Lewis will spell Henry occasionally as well as pickup the bulk of the 3rd down rushing the Titans do. 100 carries is well within reach which at a conservative 4 yards per carry average gives Lewis another 400 yards.

Henry, meanwhile, could still see 250+ carries. Gurley had 279 last year, although we should be careful assuming Lewis and Henry can and will be able to replicate what Gurley does. But the Titans and Rams both ran the ball more than 440 times last year, and every NFL team ran it at least 360 times. If Lewis is running 100 times, 250 rushes for Henry feels like a reasonable prediction. This should make him a good bet to reach 1000 yards rushing. If he catches 15 passes for 150 yards he should still be a productive fantasy starter.

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Henry and Lewis have both shown to be solid TD scorers and Gurley was proficient in that area for LA last season. Since I’m focusing on a conservative estimate I think its fair to predict they both score 1 touchdown every 200 yards gained. This leaves Henry with 1150 total yards, 6 touchdowns and 15 receptions, totaling 166 fantasy points or just over 10 per game. Lewis would have 800 yards, 4 TDs, and 47 receptions for 151 fantasy points – just under 10 per game. These totals would have made them RB22 and RB28 in PPR last year respectively. That’s not exciting but it makes them both useful RBs in the flex.

On the other hand, I could see Henry having as many as 300 touches (280 carries and 20 receptions) for 1400 yards and 10 TDs. Lewis, optimistically, could have as many as 230 touches (170 carries and 60 receptions) for just over 1400 yards and 10 TDs. This would have made Henry RB11 last year and Lewis an incredible RB7. These, of course, are very bullish projections based on aggressive touch totals and maximum efficiency. Basically everything has to go right for either back to hit those projections.

I expect both backs to land somewhere between their low and high bounds if they can stay healthy. Don’t target either back expecting them to produce as an RB1 next season. Similarly, both could easily be worth more than a simple flex play.

Admittedly, this is more like educated guess-work than a scientifically rigorous process. We are constantly reminded of how unpredictable the NFL can be year to year and week to week. But based on the information available to us I feel comfortable with both backs on my roster. Ultimately, Henry is significantly costlier to acquire which means I prefer targeting Lewis if you’re looking to round out your RB position. Both his upside and floor in PPR leagues could make him just as useful as Henry and he’s still 27 with limited wear on his tires.

Alternatively, if you play in standard leagues the gap in prices for the two backs is much more justified. Regardless, keep in mind that Lewis is a near lock to limit Henry from being the true lead back we dreamed of. However, if an owner in your league believes that will still be the case, don’t be afraid to sell Henry now before this two-headed monster takes the field.

 

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Eric Braun

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I grew up a die hard Washington Redskins and Penn State football fan and began playing fantasy football in 2007. I've been addicted and learning as much as I can about my favorite hobby ever since.

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