What to do with Derrick Henry? Sure, he comes off a monster 2,027-rushing yard season and therefore remains at or near the top of fantasy football rankings. The problem is – does he belong there?
It is rarefied air to be a 2,000-yard rusher. Only eight players broke the mark during a regular season, and Earl Campbell (1,934 + 91) hit the mark adding his one playoff game in 1980. Knowing that the following season’s fantasy expectations closely follow what just happened means that a 2,000-yard rusher like Derrick Henry naturally rockets up in the 2021 rankings.
He ended as the No. 3 fantasy back last year (PPR), and he’s been taken around the No. 3 to No. 5 in most early 2021 drafts. Seems reasonable given his production but what does history say about “the next year?”
For Henry, this isn’t even his first time with 2,000 rushing yards, at least considering his dominating season at Alabama. Before we breakdown Henry, let’s take a quick trip through the previous 2,000-yard rushers, looking at the years before and after their big season just to consider the bigger picture for each of them.
To explore their true workloads, I included the production from any post-season games in the blue shaded columns (years marked * denote playoff stats added). It is also fair to note that these players span 50 years, and the NFL has evolved and changed significantly in five decades. And – these are the most productive single-season rushers in NFL history.
O.J. Simpson (6’2″, 212 pounds)
He only played 14 games and after a less effective 1974, he blew up again in 1975 with 1,817 rush yards and a career best 23 total touchdowns.
Earl Campbell (5’11”, 232 pounds)
This was his third year and a career mark. He only managed two more 1,300 rushing yard seasons (1981, 1983) and after six years in the league was a shell of his former self due to injuries.
Eric Dickerson (6’3″, 220 pounds)
Also turned in a less effective 1985 and then roared back in 1986 with 1,821 yards on 404 carries in the regular season. Dickerson was a phenomenon through 1989 but his final four seasons starting at age 30 were all marginal and mostly injured.
Barry Sanders (5’8″, 203 pounds)
Rightfully, Sanders was an outlier of all measurements. His 2,000-yard season came at the age of 29 and he was still wildly productive at 30 before opting to retire. None of these backs had the style of Sanders who did not encourage collisions but instead shredded defenders ACL’s as they tried to keep up with him.
Terrell Davis (5’11”, 206 pounds)
The first four years for Davis redefined what a workhorse back could do. His workload was astounding and his crowning season in 1998 would be the last time that he mattered. His next (and final) three years were injury-filled and of little consequence after being used up from 1,547 carries (no typo) and 167 catches over his first four seasons.
Jamal Lewis (5’11”, 245 pounds)
His first three years proved to be his best, culminating in the 2,000-yard effort of 2003. While he managed 1,304 yards in his first season in Cleveland (2007), he struggled to reach around 1,000 rushing yards in each of the next six years that followed his career mark in 2003.
Chris Johnson (5’11”, 195 pounds)
Johnson broke the 2,000-yard mark in his second season and unlike the rest, still managed to run for 1,364 yards and 11 scores the next year. He easily peaked after three seasons, but managed to break 1,000 rushing yards for three more times before fading away for his final three years.
Adrian Peterson (6’1″, 220 pounds)
All of these backs were elite and unique, and Peterson may be the best of the bunch. Only a torn ACL in 2011 prevented him from breaking 1,250 rushing yards in each of his first seven seasons. He broke the 2,000-yard mark in his sixth year and while he was less effective in 2013, that was impacted by injuries and the death of his son.
Obviously, every back will regress after breaking 2,000-rushing yards. The percentage drop in fantasy points was Simpson (40%), Campbell (18%), Dickerson (31%), Sanders (32%), Davis (90%), Lewis (51%), Johnson (30%), and Peterson (32%). Fairly consistent around a 30% drop in fantasy points with Campbell and Davis as outliers.
Interesting too is that they were almost all 24 to 26 years old. And in their second to fourth NFL season. Again – there are outliers and these are perhaps an incomparable set of players. Sanders again proves to be unique with his 2,000-yard season during his ninth year.
It is also relevant that there is difficulty comparing players that spanned 50 years and each played in different eras.
Notable too is player size and rushing style. In the modern era, the prototypical back is around 5’10” to 6′, and weighs between 210 and 220.
Derrick Henry (6’3″, 247 pounds, 27 years old)
Finally. We all remember how he produced last year. The final three games of the fantasy season saw him total up 222, 152, and 98 yards during fantasy playoffs and then cap the year with 34 runs for 250 yards in Houston to secure the milestone.
First, his career at Alabama:
Henry played behind T.J. Yeldon and Kenyan Drake as a freshman. He then split the load with Yeldon as a sophomore. As a junior, Henry took over with a vengeance as he capped off his monster season with 36 carries for 158 yards and three touchdowns while beating Clemson in the National Championship almost single-handedly. He also won the Heisman Trophy.
Henry fell to the second round because he is very tall and runs high with no wiggle. He just goes forward and crashes into defenders. NFL evaluators were leery of the 395 carries over 15 games since Nick Saban had a reputation for overusing a player and sending them to the NFL beat up from their workload.
In the NFL, Henry started slowly. Again, the blue columns reflect full-season stats, including any playoff games.
So far as Henry’s body is concerned, he comes off two straight seasons with with around 390 carries and 2,200 total yards. Henry encourages collision. He’s rushed 787 times over the last two years as the heaviest back to break 2,000 yards.
Henry will naturally decline from 2021 but how much? Were he to incur the most common 30% decline, he’d produce 235 fantasy points and likely rank between No. 8 and No. 10 in fantasy points. Of course, after last year, he’s drafted higher in all leagues and even as high as No 1 in a few.
There are a few considerations that will impact his production in some way.
- As the heaviest 2,000-yard running back with a violent style of rushing, when does that take a toll on him? He opened his NFL career with a light workload after the 378 rushes at Alabama.
- A change in offensive coordinator from Arthur Smith to tight ends coach Todd Downing throws some uncertainty into the play calling. Downing wasn’t about rushing the ball in his previous stints as a coach, but he never had Derrick Henry.
- The loss of Adam Humphries, Corey Davis and Jonnu Smith may affect the passing offense that only added Josh Reynolds.
- Most 2,000-yard rushers miss one or two games the next year.
- Every 2000-yard rusher notched fewer yards and touchdowns the next season.
- Traditional fantasy playoffs weeks have him playing at Steelers, and then hosting the Dolphins and 49ers for tough defensive matchups at the end of the year.
The rushing strength of schedule is nearly identical to 2020, so that won’t be a problem or an advantage. The positives going into the 2021 season:
- Titans offensive line is one of the best and returns all five starters from Week 1 of 2020. Plus, they have depth. Hard to overvalue a consistent and solid offensive line.
- Despite his punishing style of play, he’s been remarkably healthy for his first five seasons.
- His three 200-yard games last year were against division rivals of the Texans (twice) and the Jaguars. They play again this year. However, the second meeting in 2021 with the Texans happens in Week 18.
Derrick Henry is a throwback to Earl Campbell and Eric Dickerson over the last two seasons, but he also at the age when most rushers start to decline. They can still offer good fantasy results, but those monster seasons start to fade. Henry is 27 years old and comes off a remarkable season thanks to the 250-yard effort in the season finale versus the Texans.
He was held to only 40 yards on 18 rushes in the Wildcard Round in the loss to the Ravens, no doubt still tired from the 34 rushes the previous week.
The problem with Derrick Henry is that history says he should lose about 30% of his 2020 fantasy points and miss one or two games. As the heaviest running back with a style like Earl Campbell, his streak of avoiding any serious injury is impressive and hard to blindly expect to continue. History says he should still most likely end up Top-10, but much closer to No. 10 than No. 1.
But Henry will remain heavily involved in the offense despite a new offensive coordinator. He has a great offensive line that should reduce the hard hits. And there was every reason to expect a downturn in 2021 after such a heavy use in 2020 but he ran for 2,000 yards and hit a career-high mark in production.
Maybe Henry has one or more great seasons as the busiest rusher in the NFL. I’d happily draft Henry, but I’d want him in the back part of the first round where risk and reward seem more even. After a monster year, there is no chance that he falls that deeply.
If playing fantasy football for over 30 years taught me anything, it’s that your first pick has to be a hit or you’re starting at a deficit that is hard to make up. Rushers drop after a 2,000-yard season in yards and scoring. They always do. The truth is there is almost no way that I will end up with Henry on a fantasy roster.
The problem is that I may regret it.
Do you feel lucky?