Lions’ Adrian Peterson: Titans’ Derrick Henry worthy of 2,000-yard club

Detroit News

John Niyo
| The Detroit News

If you ask Adrian Peterson, there’s room for one more in the club. And the way the Lions’ veteran running back sees it, Derrick Henry certainly looks like he belongs.

But don’t bother trying to get Henry to admit it right now.

Among the story lines heading into Sunday’s Lions-Titans matchup in Nashville is this one: Henry, the NFL’s rushing leader, has a shot at becoming just the eighth running back in league history — and the first since Peterson in 2012 — to rush for 2,000 yards in a single season.

But when a Tennessee reporter began to ask a question about Peterson’s feat on a Zoom call Thursday, Henry jokingly cut him off.

“Don’t do it, don’t do it,” he said, before answering. “That’s a great milestone. Not many have done it. That’s rare company. And the backs that have done it, I’m sure they would give thanks to their teammates, O-line, all the guys blocking, coaching staff. It takes everyone.”

Henry, though, insists his sole focus is on trying to help carry the Titans back to the playoffs this season, a year after losing to the eventual Super Bowl champs in Kansas City in the AFC championship game. Tennessee can clinch a postseason berth with a win over the Lions on Sunday coupled with a Baltimore loss or a combination of other results in the AFC this weekend.

Still, fresh off a 215-yard day at Jacksonville last week, Henry’s chase for 2,000 is hard to ignore. The fifth-year back and former Heisman Trophy winner at Alabama needs to average 156 yards a game over the final three weeks of the regular season to get there. And he’s not far off that pace lately, having gone over 100 yards in four of his last five outings.

Besides, if you ask Peterson, the goals really aren’t mutually exclusive. He was in a similar situation in his league MVP season in 2012, averaging 163 rushing yards over the final month to help the Minnesota Vikings rattle off four consecutive wins and earn a wild-card playoff berth. One the Vikings clinched on the back of Peterson’s 199-yard effort in the finale against Green Bay.

“I went into that game not really worried about getting into the club or breaking a record,” said Peterson, who entered that Packers game needing only 102 yards to reach 2,000. “It was all about helping my team advance to the playoffs. And that’s how you ultimately come out and accomplish great things, by going out there and playing fast, playing hard and focusing on trying to win a game.

“He is a huge part of their offense. So I feel like as long as he focuses on that, then things will fall in place for him over the next couple of weeks.”

Peterson, who sits fifth on the NFL’s career rushing list behind Lions Hall of Famer Barry Sanders, said he’s enjoying watching Henry establish himself as one of the game’s best early in his career.

He says Henry’s size (6-foot-3, 245 pounds) brings to mind former Titans star Eddie George — “He’s bigger than the linebackers,” Peterson laughed — while his quick feet, vision and “precise” cuts remind him of ex-Denver Broncos Hall of Famer Terrell Davis.

“Half the time it doesn’t look like he’s running really hard,” Peterson added, “but he is.”

And while the 35-year-old Peterson isn’t ready to call it quits himself anytime soon — he said recently he wants to play until his 40 — he’s more than ready to acknowledge “King” Henry as the heir apparent.

“As far as the torch being passed, I can’t say that that’s something I want to do,” Peterson said, smiling. “But he’s taken it, based on how he has produced over the past few years and how unstoppable he’s been. Especially this year, it’s just amazing to see him do his thing.”

Henry’s durability despite a massive workload is what some find most amazing. But there, too, Peterson sees a kindred spirit. Henry’s only a few runs shy of a second consecutive season with 300-plus carries, a threshold Peterson has broken four times in his career but one that few backs in the league reach anymore. 

“But he’s one of those guys that don’t take a lot of punishment,” the veteran said. “He’s punishing other guys. And that’s a big difference, when you’re carrying the ball that many times, being able to be the guy that’s initiating those blows.”

It’s one of the traits that caught Henry’s eye growing up watching a back who was nicknamed “All Day” in Minnesota.

“I think every kid was a fan of Adrian Peterson,” said Henry, who led the NFL with 1,540 yards in 15 games last season. “I mean, I know I was coming up. Adrian and Marshawn (Lynch) were the top two for a while. But, big A.P. fan. The longevity of his career is amazing.”

Based on what Peterson sees in the 26-year-old Henry, though, his career is headed down the same path. And when the two meet Sunday in Nashville he’ll likely tell him just that.

“You can have respect for the OGs like me and guys that came before us, but there’s nothing wrong with having a mindset that you want to be the best to ever do it, you know?” Peterson said. “If you’re not thinking that way, you’re cheatin’ yourself.”

Twitter: @JohnNiyo

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