What do the bottom of Derrick Henry’s cleats look like? Over the last eight years, Ravens defenders became all too familiar.

Though built like a Mack truck (compared to most running backs) at 6 feet, 3 inches, and almost 250 pounds, the view opponents usually get of him is in glimpses: his black visor, peering over the offensive line; his legs churning over you in the trenches; his mitt in your face, stiff-arming you to the turf; the back of his jersey shrinking in the distance as he bolts to the end zone.

For so long, Henry has been a destroyer of worlds, despite playing a position that has lost value and stature in the NFL in the last decade. He’s best known to Ravens fans as the man who almost single-handedly wrecked the dreamlike 2019 season in the playoffs. His 195 rushing yards, with 6.5 yards per carry, and a freaking passing touchdown carried the Titans past a Baltimore team that was unquestionably the NFL’s best for the entire regular season.

Now snatching up Henry, 30, as their big free agent signing, the Ravens envision the 2020 Offensive Player of the Year teaming up with Lamar Jackson for an unstoppable rushing attack and getting them over the hump.

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But you can’t help but wonder if Henry’s contract — a two-year deal that could be worth up to $20 million, with $9 million guaranteed — could be its own kind of hump for the salary cap-strapped front office.

One of the surprising developments of free agency has been the run on running backs, a position that just last year was the poster child of NFL poverty. After Josh Jacobs, Saquon Barkley and Austin Ekeler were among the prominent backs agitating for new contracts — and more money for the position group as a whole — now all three have multiyear deals with new teams. Barkley’s is the richest of all, a three-year, $37.75 million that could be worth more than $46 million with incentives.

When you see the sudden cash flow, you wonder what changed. The answer might be the NFL’s record-setting $30.6 million salary cap spike, which has had executives binging since NFL free agency opened on Monday at noon.

Undoubtedly the quiet opening day by Baltimore unnerved some restless fans. A huge extension for DT Justin Madubuike meant some other Ravens free agents could not return. But look at the salaries: Two years and up to $18 million for guard John Simpson? Two years and up to $10 million for cornerback Ronald Darby? Two years and up to $12.5 million for Devin Duvernay?

These prices are already a little out of hand.

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There are parallels to this cap spike and the one that shook up the NBA in 2016 — though the NFL’s cap increased by just 12% to the NBA’s 15%. That year is best known as the offseason that the Golden State Warriors signed Kevin Durant and became a juggernaut. But it’s also the year Chandler Parsons signed a $94.5 million deal, and Nicolas Batum got $120 million. Players like Ian Mahinmi and Timofey Mozgov were paid like franchise pillars, only to fade quickly into obscurity. After the initial frenzy, GMs were dealing with the hangover (and the millions in dead money) for years.

As Baker Mayfield lands a three-year, $100 million deal after one solid season in Tampa Bay, you have to wonder if some of these NFL deals are going down that same road.

As far as Henry, there’s a lot to like, of course. ESPN pointed out that the running back and the quarterback with the most rushing yards since 2018 are now in the same backfield. Lamar Jackson — who took strides as a passer in his second MVP season — will now see his electric scrambles balanced by Henry’s bruising runs.

For years, the Ravens have relied on Gus Edwards for physicality and breaking tackles and Justice Hill or J.K. Dobbins for change-of-pace speed. In Henry, Baltimore gets both in a single hulking package. With Henry on the sideline, the Ravens are surely giving their running backs more than eight carries in the playoffs.

But there are, frankly, many questions. Henry is entering his ninth NFL season at age 30, well past the prime age of running backs. Pro Football Focus determined that even elite running backs tend to drop off after 1,500 carries — Henry has 2,030 in the regular season alone, including four seasons where he led the NFL in carries. The Banner’s Jonas Shaffer also wrote an analysis that drew attention to the scheme fit: How will Henry perform in an offense where Jackson is making option reads after he was the primary offensive weapon for so many years in Tennessee?

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Honestly, though, the most pressing issues are contextual. The Ravens were able to lead the NFL in rushing yards with Edwards and Hill leading the RB room last year — they probably didn’t need to invest as much money as they’re paying Henry to lead the NFL again in 2024.

With limited salary cap space, that means less money will be going to other, arguably more pressing pieces of the offense: the linemen who will block for Jackson and Henry, or the receiving threats that will give balance and keep opposing defenses from stacking the boxes on every single down. Even in Henry’s best receiving season, he’s accounted for fewer than 400 yards. Investing that much in a back who does so much of his work on the ground feels like a regression back to the Greg Roman between-the-tackles physicality after Todd Monken diversified the offense last season.

Naturally the Baltimore front office had to weigh these issues when signing Henry and determined the upside was worth the risk. Ultimately, a two-year deal won’t hamstring the Ravens for a long time even if the signing doesn’t work out as hoped.

But with about half of the salary cap tied up by the franchise’s five biggest contracts, there is just not much room for error. The 2024 and 2025 seasons are probably the Super Bowl window for the Ravens, given how much their big contracts will limit their spending power in the years to come.

On one hand, you want to applaud the ambition of the Ravens for going out and adding a superstar to the offense, doubling down on the offense that has made the team so exciting in the Jackson era.

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On the other, you hope that Henry — after breaking the Ravens’ tackles for so many years — now won’t crush their dreams under the heft of his contract.

It’s a better position to be carried on his shoulders than feeling his weight underfoot.

Several contract figures in this column have been updated based on the latest reports. This column has also been updated to correct the spelling of Timofey Mozgov's surname.

Kyle joined The Baltimore Banner in 2023 as a sports columnist. He previously covered the L.A. Lakers for The Orange County Register and myriad sports at The Salt Lake Tribune. He’s a Mt. Hebron High and University of Maryland alum.

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