What If Derrick Henry Played Edge? Top NFL RBs Who Could Star at Other Positions
0 of 6
Derrick HenryJustin Ford/Getty Images
Sparked by the contract situations with Josh Jacobs and Saquon Barkley, the running back market has become a hot topic of conversation in the NFL recently.
Due to the nature and perceived value of the position, teams are reluctant to give their top rushers big money, long-term deals despite the players’ high-level production. In response, that has ignited an interesting hypothetical question: ‘What if the league’s top running backs played a different position?’
Here, we’ll dive into what other spots Jacobs, Barkley, Derrick Henry, Austin Ekeler and Christian McCaffrey could line up at, touching on what would make them successful and what their biggest hurdle would be. How each player’s current contract compares to the top five players at their second positions will be explored as well.
Derrick Henry: Edge
1 of 6
Derrick HenryCourtney Culbreath/Getty Images
Reasons for success: Derrick Henry has become one of, if not the most physically imposing running backs in the NFL over the last few years. He runs over defender after defender and his stiff arms have gone viral on social media several times. Just ask Josh Norman what it’s like taking Henry’s palm to the facemask.
The reason why Henry is such a physically imposing rusher is he’s essentially built like a modern-day edge defender. At 6’2.5″ and 247 pounds, he’s basically the same size as future Hall of Famer Von Miller (6’2.625″ and 246 pounds). The running back also has 33-inch arms and hit 22 reps on the bench press, half an inch shorter and one more than Miller.
Tractorcito’s arm length would help him create separation from offensive tackles as a pass rusher, and he’s strong enough to set the edge against the run.
Biggest Hurdle: While Henry is a large human being, he’d be a little light to play as a defensive end in even fronts or a 4-3-heavy defensive scheme. Typically, defensive ends in that system hover around the 270-pound mark, so he’d likely be pigeon-holed as a standup outside linebacker in odd fronts.
Also, Henry isn’t very agile with a short-shuttle time of 4.38 seconds and a 7.2-second three-cone. That could impact his bend as a pass rusher and thus, lead to fewer sacks which is how edge defenders get paid in today’s league.
Contract comparison: In 2020, Henry signed a four-year, $50 million contract ($12.5 million per year). Meanwhile, Maxx Crosby and Khalil Mack are tied for the fourth-biggest contract among edges on a dollar-per-season basis at $23.5 million. So, the Titans’ rusher would get a big raise if he could switch sides of the ball and play in the trenches.
Austin Ekeler: Wide Receiver
2 of 6
Austin EkelerHarry How/Getty Images
Reasons for success: Admittedly, this one is taking the low-hanging fruit. Amidst the running back controversy, many people have already suggested Austin Ekeler make the switch to wide receiver because he’s become the best pass-catching running back in the league over the last few years.
Last season, Ekeler led the Los Angeles Chargers regardless of position with 127 targets and 107 receptions. Those figures were also the most of any running back league-wide by 19 and 22, respectively, according to Stat Muse. Going back a little bit further, his 2,765 receiving yards since 2019 are the most at the position by more than 500 yards.
Ekeler clearly has the hands to line up as a slot receiver and can move the ball down the field after the catch. Also, his short-area quickness would make him difficult to cover, and his 40.5-inch vertical could help make up for his lack of height (5’8.625″).
Biggest Hurdle: Playing on the outside as an ‘X’ or ‘Z’ receiver is pretty much out of the question for the vertically-challenged Ekeler. While his leaping ability could bridge some of that gap, wideouts on the perimeter typically need both height and a good vertical to be able to high-point balls and contribute in the red zone.
In other words, he’d get slapped with the ‘slot-only’ label and might struggle to be productive in the scoring area without a creative play-caller.
Additionally, while the Charger has great production as a receiver, he also primarily draws linebackers and safeties in coverage instead of cornerbacks, meaning the numbers above might not translate as a wideout.
Contract comparison: Ekeler is playing on the last year of a four-year, $24.5 million contract ($6.125 million per year). Stefon Diggs is currently the fifth-highest-paid wide receiver at $24 million a season, so Ekeler could nearly quadruple his income if he could be an elite wideout.
Josh Jacobs: Cornerback
3 of 6
Josh JacobsRonald Martinez/Getty Images
Reasons for success: A big reason why Josh Jacobs won the rushing title in 2022 is because he’s elite at making defenders miss. But last season wasn’t just an anomaly as he has been doing it his entire career, leading the NFL in missed tackles forced since he was drafted with 198, per Pro Football Focus.
Jacobs possesses a rare combination of excellent change of direction skills and strength/power, which would translate well as a nickelback or slot corner. In coverage, he’d be able to mirror and match a shifty receiver on short routes, and he’s strong and physical enough to provide run support which a lot of schemes require from their inside cornerbacks.
Also, at 220 pounds, Jacobs would be a bull as a blitzer and give opposing running backs a lot of trouble in pass protection.
Biggest Hurdle: With a 4.64 40-time, the reigning rushing champ would lack speed as a cornerback. That would require defensive coordinators to constantly give him safety help over the top to avoid getting beat deep, thus limiting the playbook.
Jacobs’ lack of length could be a potential issue at cornerback, too. He’s only 5’10 and has 31.625-inch arms which isn’t ideal for an outside corner, meaning he would likely only play inside and would have to come off the field when the defenses use their base packages.
Contract comparison: While Jacobs hasn’t signed the franchise tag, the one-year, $10.1 million contract is on the table for him whenever he chooses to put ink to paper. Among cornerbacks, that would rank 19th on a dollar-per-year basis, and the Alabama product’s college teammate Trevon Diggs just became the NFL’s fifth-richest corner at $19.4 million per year.
Christian McCaffrey: Safety
4 of 6
Christian McCaffreyLachlan Cunningham/Getty Images
Reasons for success: Christian McCaffrey has become one of the best running backs in the league due to his Swiss Army knife-like skill set. In 2019, he became just the third player in NFL history to record over 1,000 rushing and receiving yards in the same season.
But that wasn’t just a fluke, as he’s logged more than 1,000 yards from scrimmage every year he’s been healthy and has flirted with or eclipsed the 2,000-yard mark three times.
Versatility is one of the biggest factors NFL general managers and scouts look for in a safety, and seeing as McCaffrey has already shown that on offense, it’d likely be the same story on the other side of the ball.
His 4.48-second 40-yard dash time would give him plenty of speed for sideline-to-sideline range as a deep safety, and his impressive 6.57 three-cone would allow him to line up in man coverage to mirror and match wide receivers on sharp-breaking routes.
Size-wise, the Stanford product isn’t the biggest guy at 5’11.25″ and 202 pounds, but he’s nearly identical to a two-time All-Pro safety in Kevin Byard (5’11.25″ and 212 pounds).
Biggest Hurdle: While McCaffrey does have a lot of tools in his belt, strength is not one of them. He only put up 10 reps on the bench press at the combine, and that could be an issue when it comes to run support as a safety. Asking him to play in the box likely wouldn’t go over well, limiting him to more of the center field type of role.
Contract comparison: A unique skill set comes with a unique contract as McCaffrey is currently the highest-paid running back with a four-year, $64.1 million contract ($16 million and change per year). Derwin James has the top contract among safeties and only makes about $3 million more than that and Harrison Smith ranks fifth at $16 million a year.
So, this is a rare situation where a running back is probably better off with his current idea, seeing as McCaffrey would have to be a top-three safety to earn a raise and a minor pay bump at that.
Saquon Barkley: Linebacker
5 of 6
Saquon BarkleyCourtney Culbreath/Getty Images
Reasons for success: Coming out of Penn State, Saquon Barkley was considered a unicorn and that’s why he was the second overall pick of the 2019 draft despite playing the least-valuable position on the field.
Part of the reason why Barkley was so highly-regarded as a prospect is his testing numbers at the combine were elite, earning a 9.97 RAS score out of 10. His 4.4-second 40-yard dash, 4.24-second short shuttle and 41-inch vertical were jaw-dropping, but the fact he did all of that at 233 pounds was the most impressive aspect of his performance.
In the modern version of the NFL, the ideal range for a linebacker’s weight, relatively speaking, is around 230 to 240 pounds so that they can move well enough to be effective in coverage. Barkley is close to the middle of that scale and, based on the numbers above, has the movement skills to play Tampa 2 coverage or man up against running backs and tight ends.
Also, ‘SaQuads’ as he’s been appropriately nicknamed after several videos of him squatting have gone viral on social media, has plenty of strength to hold up as a run defender and it’s not just his lower body strength that’s impressive. His 29 reps on the bench press in 2018 would have tied for the most among linebackers at the combine in this year’s draft class.
Biggest Hurdle: While Barkley is plenty strong, he does have short arms at just 31.375 inches. That would limit the amount of extension he could get when taking on blocks against offensive linemen as a run defender, causing him to get stuck on blocks. Plus, it would be more difficult for him to wrap up as a tackler, leading to misses.
Contract comparison: Barkley and the Giants ended up agreeing to a one-year contract that’s basically the same as the $10.1 million franchise tag. If he were to be a top-five linebacker, he’d be looking at nearly a $7 million raise this season and have a much easier time getting a long-term deal.
Nick Chubb: Safety
6 of 6
Nick ChubbLee Coleman/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
Reasons for success: Part of the reason why Nick Chubb has become one of the league’s best running backs is he’s a load to bring down. He tips the scale at 227 pounds and it feels like it’s been an annual offseason tradition that a video of him squatting 600 pounds or more goes viral on social media.
Also, like Barkley, Chubb hit 29 reps on the bench press coming out of college. That strength would translate well if he were to play as a strong or box safety. He’d be able to hold his ground against tight ends and offensive linemen in the running game, and he has decent arm length for the position at 32 inches to help escape blocks.
While yes, Chubb’s arms are only five-eighths of an inch longer than Barkley’s, that’s significant in the scouting world and it’s a different standard since they’re playing different positions in this hypothetical scenario.
But the Brown isn’t just a power back, he can run with his 4.52-second 40-time and has shown plenty of lateral movement skills with his cuts throughout his five NFL seasons. Those traits would translate well in coverage as a box safety since he has the speed to cover tight ends and running backs deep and the agility to stay in phase against horizontal routes.
Biggest Hurdle: At a shade under 5’11”, Chubb’s height could be a major issue, especially in the red zone. If he was covering a tight end or bigger wide receiver with any sort of contested catch ability, he’d be at a significant physical disadvantage.
With Chubb in coverage near the scoring area, offenses could dial-up fade routes to their big-bodied pass catchers and there isn’t much he’d be able to do about it. That would likely mean he’d have to come out of the game when the defense needs their 11 best players to step up the most.
Contract comparison: Chubb is currently on a three-year deal for $36.6 million ($12.2 million annually). That ranks fourth among running backs this season and, as mentioned previously, the fifth-highest-paid safety makes $16 million per year. So, about a $4 million raise would be in store for Cleveland’s running back if he flipped sides of the ball.