TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — At first glance, Derrick Henry doesn’t appear to have a care in the world.
Just a few months removed from capturing the Heisman Trophy and a national championship with Alabama, Henry (2,219 rushing yards, 28 TDs in 2015) is primed to become either the first or second running back taken in the upcoming NFL draft (chief competition: Ohio State’s Ezekiel Elliott).
By extension, the Yulee, Fla., standout might even be a Round 1 selection, in the recent company of Todd Gurley, Melvin Gordon, Doug Martin, Trent Richardson and Mark Ingram — with the latter pair rolling up big college numbers at Alabama.
But alas, there should be some consternation within the Henry camp, amid the backdrop of Crimson Tide prospects partaking in their Pro Days on Wednesday — the last chance to impress scouts, general managers and coaches, en masse.
In today’s NFL, it’s necessary for blue-chip tailback prospects to immediately find a good home in the pros. Otherwise, these once-infallible playmakers can end up on a proverbial dumping ground of eminently replaceable assets at that position — long before their second NFL contract.
How’s that for pressure?
Never mind that Henry — only Alabama’s second Heisman recipient in history (along with Mark Ingram) — ran a 4.54 40-yard dash, notched 22 reps on the bench press (225 pounds), 37 inches on the vertical leap and 130 inches on the broad jump at the NFL Scouting Combine last month (all high-end tallies).
Never mind that, at 6-foot-3, 247 pounds, Henry cuts the physique of a Greek god, or something out of a modern-day Gerard Butler movie, despite matching the weight of Alabama linebacker Reggie Ragland.
(Are running backs this big … supposed to be that fast?)
Instead, if the 21-year old is a bad scheme fit with his first NFL franchise, the demand for him to join a second team might progressively diminish over a four-year period.
Even if he’s primarily a victim of circumstance. It’s the nature of the beast.
This cavalier attitude, in NFL circles, can be attributed to three schools of thought:
1) Running backs, minus generational talents like Adrian Peterson (first-ballot Hall of Famer), Le’Veon Bell (healthy lock for 2,000 total yards) or the aforementioned Gurley (1,106 rookie rushing yards in just 13 games), are remarkably similar assets in the marketplace, meaning the supply of quality rushers far outnumbers the demand.
2) The “workhorse” back of years past (300-plus carries every season) may be on the brink of extinction, as clubs lean toward a two-man ensemble of one power rusher (gifted between the tackles) and one pass-friendly back who’s a viable threat for 40-50 catches per season.
3) Dynamic backs in their early to mid 20s quickly become broken-down ball carriers by their late 20s. In essence, there’s only so much gas in the tank.
Which brings us to this: In his three-year career with Alabama, Henry only caught multiple passes out of the backfield in two games, totaling just 17 receptions and three touchdowns during that span.
For as many as 10 NFL teams, it’s an immediate red flag about Henry’s scheme viability — even if there are zero personal red flags to ponder about the kid.
“Did I look bad? I felt pretty good out there,” Henry asked the media rhetorically, after running a series of passing routes for Alabama quarterback Jake Coker, who didn’t receive a combine invitation in February but still may be drafted in the latter rounds.
In his 40-minute exhibition, Henry executed defender-free routes from the backfield spots (“in” routes, “wheel” patterns), from the interior receiving slot and occasionally as a wideout (particularly in the red zone) — a frightening thought for any undersized nickel cornerback in the red zone.
“I’m a fan of running (any route), just catching the ball, making myself more versatile, more useful. I’m all for it,” said Henry, who interviewed with the Patriots, Dolphins and Browns on Tuesday night.
“With Derrick Henry, you’ve got to get past the style points” when evaluating him for the next level, says Alabama head coach Nick Saban, who praised his star’s speed, power and punishing stiff arm.
Saban even gushed about Henry’s instincts for leaving school early, saying it was the right move to make.
“He’ll be a very, very good player (in the NFL),” Saban declared.
There’s a valid legacy concern, though. Henry must overcome the perception that Alabama running backs in the Saban era are sturdy, complementary pieces to pro-style offenses — minus the capacity for breaking off long touchdown runs on every carry.
But don’t tell Henry that.
“All I need is a line,” he said, “(and) I’m good.”
Jay Clemons, the 2015 national winner for “Sports Blog Of The Year” (Cynopsis Media), has previously written for SI.com, The National Football Post, Bleacher Report and FOX Sports.