NASHVILLE, Tenn. — As Tennessee Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill was running reps with the first-team offense, something was different.
He didn’t have his star wideout since he became the starter in 2019, after A.J. Brown was traded in the offseason, but that wasn’t it.
A lot of it had to do with his safety blanket being stuck in… a sandpit?
That’s right, star running back Derrick Henry wasn’t on the receiving end of Tannehill’s handoffs like normal in the offseason, he was instead working in… a sandpit.
“It’s real,” Henry said of the sandpit with assistant strength and conditioning coach Brian Bell keeping a close watch on things. “I love it. It gets me in shape. It’s just good work. It’s good restricted running. You have to really dig, and it gets your legs burning.”
Henry has found a new source of motivation from those who doubt he’ll be himself after a Jones fracture of his right foot derailed his 2021 season, but the sandpit is one of the many ways that Henry goes about attacking each day in search of bouncing back.
He admitted to being fueled by the doubters and responded with “We gonna see” when asked about the rumblings that he was on the decline. As Henry ran through the sandpit, it became clear that his upper body was bigger. But he doesn’t seem to have lost the breakaway speed that led to many big runs over his career.
But the questions are still there as Henry, who missed the final nine regular-season games in 2021, enters his seventh season.
New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley shared Henry’s motto of daily improvement by attacking each day after Barkley missed six games last season because of an ankle injury and has also been earmarked for a decline after rushing for only 593 yards last season.
Like Henry, Barkley wants to show that he isn’t on the decline, but he was more direct about it.
“I just want to kill, just go crazy,” Barkley said. “I’m tired of the BS that is said about me or this team, and I want to go out there and prove to this organization that the player they drafted is still there.”
Despite only playing in eight games, Henry finished in the top 1o in rushing yards (937) and rushing touchdowns (10) and tied for the second-most runs of 40 yards or more (two) last season.
Henry, who was leading the league in rushing at the time of his injury, was on pace for his third consecutive season with at least 300 carries . He was trending toward becoming the first player to rush for 2,000 or more yards in two seasons.
Neither Henry nor the Titans were ever concerned about Henry’s workload. They had their eyes on the bigger picture: Winning.
“Getting Derrick the ball gives us a better chance to win,” offensive coordinator Todd Downing said early last season. “The balance is wins and losses.”
Added Henry, “Whatever I can do to help, I am always for it.”
The Titans’ physical style of play starts with giving Henry plenty of carries to set the tone on offense. Henry’s 900 total carries over the last three seasons are more than any other back.
“Derrick’s a volume guy,” Titans general manager Jon Robinson said. “He wants the ball. He likes it when we give it to him. That’s a balance that you have to, from a coaching standpoint with trainers, with the strength coaches, just figure out what’s best for the football team. The most important thing is the availability of the player a lot of times, more so than the ability of the player.”
Henry said it was good to get back for the divisional playoff game against the Cincinnati Bengals last January, despite the outcome. It allowed him to conquer most of the rehab process and offered a chance to see how the foot held up in live action.
Getting game action carried over into the offseason and allowed him to come back ready to go.
Once minicamp rolled around, it was clear that Henry put in the necessary work during the offseason. Titans coach Mike Vrabel, vice president of sports medicine Todd Toriscelli, head strength and conditioning coach Frank Piraino and Henry collectively came up with a program to manage Henry’s workload during training camp.
“He’s in a good spot,” Vrabel said. “Derrick wants to be as involved as possible. We have open dialogue. He’s been great, and he’s been all for whatever it is that we decide and we think is best for him, and ultimately the team.”
Henry participated in individual periods of practice and was in the backfield at times when they worked on inside runs to get some contact with defenders, but he was mostly on a different field when the Titans went to team periods and seven-on-seven, even in joint practices with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
In addition to the sandpit, Henry occasionally did wind sprints with coach Piraino while the offense had live reps against the defense. Other times he’d work on pass catching with running backs coach Tony Dews.
“I’m just looking to improve each and every day,” Henry said. “Always working to be in shape. That’s why coach Vrabel has me on this plan so when it’s time to go, I’m ready and able to answer.”
At 28 years old, Henry is inching closer to the dreaded age of 30 for running backs, an age where decline seems to happen quickly.
But that isn’t something that Henry thinks about. His focus is on being available to help the team.
Henry can look to Adrian Peterson as an example of still being able to run the ball well despite getting long in the tooth. Peterson was 30 when he carried the ball 327 times for 1,485 yards.
“It’s my mindset,” Peterson said. “I don’t get into the 30-year-old running back thing, that you’re done at 30. I am getting stronger with age.”
Ironically, Peterson was 36 years old when the Titans signed him after Henry’s injury last season, making him the oldest active running back in the NFL.
Now Henry will look to make the type of return that Peterson had when he was 27 coming back from tearing his MCL and meniscus to rush for 2,097 yards.
The workload has started to ramp up over the past week with Henry taking part in more team periods.
“Coach Vrabel and our strength/coaching staff help me stay in shape,” Henry said. “I usually get good work in right before the season starts. Coach Dews does a great job making sure that we’re ready so we’re seeing it and getting north and south when the time comes.”