In a perfect world (Scenario I), Tennessee buys low on a proven veteran running back in the offseason to consolidate last season’s disaster of a backfield. The result provides Mike Mularkey with a solid running game behind an upgraded offensive line and takes some of the offensive pressure off franchise quarterback Marcus Mariota.
In a perfect world (Scenario II), the Titans work the draft board like a maestro, winding up with a Heisman Trophy-winning back in the second round. Mularkey happily pins his future to a talented young backfield with multiple Heismans.
In the real world, unfortunately, Tennessee did both. And while DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry give the Titans redundancy and depth at one of the most injury-prone positions in football, what fantasy value the backfield may have held now threatens to be split down the middle.
Murray’s two best seasons—2013, when he was fantasy RB8, and 2014 when he led all running backs with 304 fantasy points—came with him getting 73% and 81% of his team’s backfield touches. His two seasons with less than 50% of his team’s backfield workload resulted in the only two seasons in which he averaged less than 10 fantasy points per game.
Unfortunately for Murray, Mularkey’s track record suggests this will be a job share. In his 11 seasons as either an NFL head coach or offensive coordinator, only once has Mularkey called plays for a backfield in which the feature back saw 70% or more of the workload: 2005, when Willis McGahee headlined the Bills’ backfield to the tune of 82% of the touches. Jerome Bettis never saw more than 56% of the Steelers' backfield touches during Mularkey’s three seasons in Pittsburgh; Michael Turner hovered around two-thirds of the Falcons’ backfield touches in three of the four seasons Mularkey called plays in Atlanta; McGahee (67% in 2004) and Ronnie Brown (67% in 2006) shared a third of the work under Mularkey; and his last two outings—the 2012 Jaguars with Rashard Jennings and Maurice Jones-Drew and last season’s clusterboink in Tennessee—couldn’t even claim one back with more than half the touches.
Murray will also be working with a smaller overall volume than he’s become accustomed to. Mularkey’s last two backfields have averaged 24.5 and 22.3 touches per game, and over his 11 years of NFL play-calling his backfields average less than 30 total touches per game. That means Murray is looking at two-thirds of fewer touches, struggling to get to the 20.8 touches per game he averaged in Dallas. So even if he bounces back from last season’s misuse in Philly, Murray’s decreased volume puts a lid on his fantasy opportunity.
It’s possible that Henry is the latest Alabama back to struggle in the NFL, more Trent Richardson than Mark Ingram. But the Titans have a second-round pick invested in him, so he’ll need to prove he’s a slug to lose a significant amount of touches. Tennessee has plenty invested in Murray as well, picking up three years of contract at $6 million per annum; money talks, so he won’t be the odd man out. And of course there’s Mariota, the face of the franchise. Mularkey isn’t about to turn him into a handoff machine, and there’s always the possibility of him sniping both Murray and Henry with his rushing skills.
Ultimately, while the Titans’ trade for Murray offers intriguing possibilities, the drafting of Henry muddies the waters and lessens the opportunity to the point that banking on Murray to provide anything resembling his 2013-2014 fantasy bang is a risky proposition at best.
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