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NFL Draft

NFL’s New Schedule Presents Tougher Challenges For RBs

  • The Draft Network
  • April 19, 2021
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The most recent change to the 2021 NFL schedule has brought rightful concern to player health and safety. The 17-game schedule will cause even greater wear-and-tear on players, especially to skill positions with a heavy workload.

New Orleans Saints running back Alvin Kamara, along with Green Bay Packers safety Adrian Amos and Philadelphia Eagles cornerback Darius Slay, are just a few of the players who expressed their concern, via Twitter, shortly after the schedule change was announced late March. Houston Texans running back David Johnson shared his concern over player safety; the similar sentiment was shared last year, in more detail, by San Francisco 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman.

“I don't agree with it,” Johnson said. “As football players, especially as a running back, it's tough to get through injury-free.”

Running backs, in particular, will bear the brunt of an overextended schedule. And no one has run more than Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry. Henry has been the key to the Titans’ surging success the past couple of seasons. He topped 2,000 yards in 2020 for the first time in his career to reach an illustrious group of backs; however, back-to-back seasons of 2,000-plus rushing yards is unheard of. There are now eight players who’ve reached that mark in a single season and of the eight, and only Barry Sanders came remotely close to consecutive 2,000-plus seasons when he rushed for 1,491 yards in 1998 (following his 1997 season of 2,053 rushing yards). Henry’s 2,027 yards was the fifth-highest total in a single season in NFL history; it’s the third season Henry’s rushed for more than 1,000 yards.

Henry has been the expectation to the unwritten rule permeating the pass-happy NFL. Running backs are being devalued and more teams are moving to a run-by-committee approach. The new 17-game season should increase this trend, except in Tennessee, where head coach Mike Vrabel is confident Henry can still carry the workload.

“We try to be smart as we prepare. Nobody prepares for the rigors of the season more than Derrick,” Vrabel said during a Q&A with Lions fans. “I'm not going to say that Derrick is the hardest working player in football; I wouldn't do that to the players around this league. But I can't imagine that any of them work harder than he does, and he understands that, and the toll that he is going to take.”

The extended season will certainly give backs like Henry a chance to break long-standing NFL records or create new ones, but there’s a much greater risk for injury with the added carries. Last season, Henry finished with a league-leading 378 carries; he has the most carries of any back in the last three seasons (896). Henry also has the most rushing yards (4,626) and rushing touchdowns (45) in that time frame, all at the age of 27. Henry, like a lot of backs, is in his prime; now, it’s just a matter of staying as healthy as possible. 

Teams that already have a group of backs to share touches might avoid any effects of the schedule change. But others, like the Titans, who rely solely on Henry out of the backfield, might have to reimagine a game plan to better suit the changing league landscape.

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