It’s a recruiting subplot as common as the elaborate ceremonies to announce a commitment. A star athlete wants to play a glamorous offensive position, while some try to push him to move to defense instead.
That was the story with Alabama running back Derrick Henry in 2012 when he was being recruited by virtually every program in the South. Henry was solely focused on playing the offensive position that would make him famous at Alabama, but more than a few analysts thought Henry would be better suited as a defensive end or an outside linebacker.
The end result was that Henry got to stick with the position that he wanted and it paid off in a Heisman Trophy win this season. Yet, while Henry’s year will forever make him a part of college football history the rest of the story is actually a little more complicated than it might seem.
Henry declared this week for the 2016 NFL Draft. Pundits were quick to offer their assessment on Henry’s chances of succeeding at the next level and not all of those evaluations were kind. For instance, longtime draft analyst for ESPN, Mel Kiper, Jr. said Henry is only a third-round talent because of his limited mobility.
If that prediction turns out to be accurate, the financial ramifications for Henry could be devastating. According to Business Insider the average value of a contract for a third-round pick in the NFL draft is just $588,000, and as has been widely reported, the average length of an NFL career is only slightly longer than three years. In other words, there is a very real chance that Henry will never truly cash in on his abilities as a running back — at least compared to the millions earned by other NFL players.
Henry’s situation is further complicated by how heavily he was used at Alabama this season. Alabama coach Nick Saban and offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin saw fit to give Henry 395 carries. He rushed 36 or more times in five different games.
There is little doubt that the Crimson Tide wouldn’t have won the national title without Henry taking on such a significant workload. However, it is also just as certain that NFL teams are going to be skeptical of a player that’s already been used that much and sustained the inevitable wear and tear associated with those carries.
So what if Henry hadn’t played running back in college?
He likely wouldn’t have won the Heisman Trophy, and Alabama’s program would have suffered too. Yet Henry might also be in a much better position for this year’s NFL draft.
If Henry had played defensive end or outside linebacker the way some thought he should then Henry would be moving toward this year’s draft attached to a position that the NFL currently values a lot more than the running back position he actually plays. There have been a total of 19 outside linebackers and defensive ends drafted in the first round over the last three years. During that span, just one running back has been taken in the first round.
Of course, there is no guarantee that if Henry had chosen to play a defensive position that he would’ve blossomed the way he has at running back, but Henry was an elite prospect for a reason. Most analysts believe his physical skills would’ve translated to the other side of the ball.
It’s also fair to point out that the level of fame brought on by Henry’s Heisman season has a value of its own. However, if that experience comes at the expense of the riches he could’ve earned in the NFL then it will have proven to be a hefty price indeed, and only Henry can know for sure if it was worth it.