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You’d be hard-pressed to find another NFL running back who has racked up highlights more in the past two years than Tennessee Titans star Derrick Henry.
For starters, Henry, a 6-foot-3, 240-pound tower who combines his rare size with 4.5 sprinter speed, rarely gets caught from behind. That alone is a wonder, one people gawked at on social media when he broke his 94-yard run against the Texans two weeks ago, for instance, or his 99-yard run against the Jaguars last season.
Yet, it’s the way Henry uses his 33-inch arms — which are longer than some linemen — that has really catapulted him into the consciousness of football fans everywhere. His powerful stiff arm, which he doles out regularly and often devastatingly, is the best in the NFL, and when he catches defenders just right — like he did to Earl Thomas last postseason and, more recently, Josh Norman — whoo boy do those guys have a hard time living it down.
“I had long arms and it came natural to me, and I’ve been using it since I was a kid. That’s been my go-to ever since I started playing football,” said Henry, who recently spoke to Yahoo Sports on behalf of Old Spice.
Now, as one of 48 Pro Football Hall of Fame voters scattered throughout the country, I often think about players’ individual legacies when watching games. I can’t help myself.
I watch DK Metcalf run and catch like Terrell Owens and think, “Hmm — he’s definitely talented enough to get there one day. Plus he has Russ!” even though he hasn’t even played two seasons.
Or I watch Patrick Mahomes and realize he could go down as the greatest NFL player of all time, even though Tom Brady has six rings to his one.
Like I said, I can’t help myself. But my heart’s in the right place!
So bear with me here, people, because in the only item in this week’s “Things I Noticed” column, I explore how Henry can get in the Hall, and how his devastating stiff arm — which I notice each and every week — is already a nice feather in his cap, one that could help his cause down the road.
Derrick Henry is a highlight waiting to happen
In addition to racking up a swell of rushing yards and touchdowns, practically every Hall of Fame runner, from Jim Brown to Barry Sanders to Emmitt Smith to Walter Payton, also had a vast array of memorable runs, ones that fans openly gawked at in wonder.
If Twitter was around for any of those guys, they would have trended many times.
Just like Henry has.
Now, I’m writing all of this with one enormous caveat, and it’s this: The 26-year-old Henry has only 4,496 career rushing yards. He also has two 1,000-yard seasons under his belt, and probably needs about five or six more of those to legitimately get into this conversation.
That’s no guarantee because big backs traditionally age poorly.
But … what if Henry doesn’t?
We’ve never really seen a back this big and this fast before. What if he’s a freaky outlier, one who remains productive past the age of 30, ends up approaching the magical 12,000-yard threshold that has essentially guaranteed Hall of Fame entry for running backs and, along the way, he racks up more gif-able stiff arms and highlights?
Approaching 12,000 yards but not cracking it wouldn’t guarantee induction. Fifteen retired backs, for instance, have finished their careers with between 10,000 to 11,999 rushing yards, and only two, O.J. Simpson and John Riggins, made the Hall.
But if Henry’s career goes the way I just laid out — a big but not insurmountable if — I’d argue that on a purely visceral level, Henry’s uniqueness as a runner will merit strong Hall consideration.
Hell, his stiff arm is already one of the best of his generation, one that we’ll compare to big backs of the future. I broke it down in the latest episode of the original Yahoo Sports series “Check the Tape,” which you can watch atop this page.
“I definitely appreciate the things you just said, and as a player, I mean, everybody has that dream to be recognized for all the hard work they put into this game from the first time stepping on the field until you’re done playing,” Henry told me. “There’s so many greats that are in the Hall of Fame and hopefully one day, I’ll be able to put my name with those guys.”
Henry quickly offered a caveat of his own.
“I don’t think I’m anywhere close,” he added. “I’ll continue to work to hopefully one day have the opportunity.”
What would help Derrick Henry’s Hall of Fame case?
An MVP award would help Henry’s cause. Of the 14 retired running backs who have won it, all but two — Shaun Alexander, who has a good case to get in, and Larry Brown — have gotten into the Hall.
Henry currently leads the NFL in rushing yards (663) and rushing touchdowns (seven) for the 5-1 Titans. He is the centerpiece of a good offense, one of the few running backs who can claim that distinction these days. That’s telling considering how the NFL is more pass-centric now and a running back hasn’t won the award since Adrian Peterson in 2012.
“I’m just trying to block out the noise,” said Henry, who reiterated his recent claim that Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill deserves to be in the MVP conversation. “His leadership, the way he leads each and every day. Everybody in this building trusts him.”
Yet neutral observers often acknowledge that Tannehill often thrives off play-action, which is set up because of how terrified defenses are of Henry and the devastating, HOF stiff arms he can deliver.
Surprisingly, he doesn’t have a favorite stiff arm from his five-year career.
“When I’m done playing, we can look at all the stiff arms and pick and choose one,” Henry said.
By then, he might have to because if he proves to be an outlier for big backs, there’s a reasonable chance he’ll be asked that question numerous times before ultimately donning a gold jacket in Canton.
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