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The Case Against Derrick Henry



By Steve Schwarz | 7/29/21 |

I was trolling twitter Tuesday evening and came across a Paul Kuharsky tweet which mentioned that just four players in NFL history have ever rushed for 1,500 yards and 15 touchdowns in consecutive seasons. They were; Terrell Davis (1997-98), Shaun Alexander (2004-05), Larry Johnson (2005-06) and our hero Derrick Henry (2019-20).

Derrick Henry

Then it dawned on me that at least a couple of those guys were in the middle of great runs and then suffered major injuries. Sure enough, I was right on three. Check the charts below (I added Eric Dickerson because he was too close to ignore):

Year Player G Att Yds TDs Rec Yds TD FPTs FPts/G
1983 Eric Dickerson 16 390 1808 18 51 404 2 392.2 24.5
1984 Eric Dickerson 16 379 2105 14 21 139 0 329.4 20.6
1985 Eric Dickerson 14 292 1234 12 20 126 0 228.0 16.3

Year Player G Att Yds TDs Rec Yds TD FPTs FPts/G
1997 Terrell Davis 15 369 1750 15 42 487 0 335.7 22.4
1998 Terrell Davis 16 392 2008 21 25 217 2 385.5 24.1
1999 Terrell Davis 4 67 211 2 3 26 0 35.7 8.9

Year Player G Att Yds TDs Rec Yds TD FPTs FPts/G
2004 Shaun Alexander 16 353 1696 16 23 170 4 329.6 20.6
2005 Shaun Alexander 16 370 1880 27 15 78 1 378.8 23.7
2006 Shaun Alexander 10 252 896 7 12 48 0 148.4 14.8

Year Player G Att Yds TDs Rec Yds TD FPTs FPts/G
2005 Larry Johnson 16 336 1750 20 33 343 1 368.3 23.0
2006 Larry Johnson 16 416 1789 17 41 410 2 374.9 23.4
2007 Larry Johnson 8 158 559 3 30 186 1 128.5 16.1

Year Player G Att Yds TDs Rec Yds TD FPTs FPts/G
2019 Derrick Henry 15 303 1540 16 18 206 2 300.6 20.0
2020 Derrick Henry 16 378 2027 17 19 114 0 335.1 20.9
2121 Derrick Henry ??? ??? ??? ??? ??? ??? ??? ??? ???

How are we to have complete faith in Henry when history has shown that every person who has accomplished the feat was injured or took a significant performance hit in their attempt for a “three-peat?”

Davis averaged 23.3 FPts/G over the two-year span, then dropped to 8.9 FPts/G a drop of over 60%. Alexander went from 22.2 to 14.8 (33%), Larry Johnson saw a drop of 30% (23.2 to 16.1) and even Dickerson took a huge production dive of 27%.

But in truth, this is a familiar refrain from the past … if you will recall the “Rule of 370.”

The basic 370-carry theorem is: "A running back with 370 or more carries during the regular season will usually suffer either a major injury or loss of effectiveness the following year. Prime early examples of this “rule” were produced by; Edgerrin James, Curtis Martin, Jamaal Lewis, Ricky Williams and Jamal Anderson.

Even allowing for the fact that more teams pass a lot and run less, if we look at the last five guys with at least 340 rushing attempts, the outlook is not pretty for Henry in 2021. See below:

Year Player G Att Yds TDs Rec Yds TD FPTs FPts/G
2014 DeMarco Murray 16 393 1845 13 57 416 0 361.1 22.6
2015 DeMarco Murray 15 194 699 6 44 322 1 188.1 12.5
2012 Arian Foster 16 351 1424 15 40 217 2 306.1 19.1
2013 Arian Foster 8 121 542 1 22 183 1 106.5 13.3
2012 Adrian Peterson 16 348 2097 12 40 217 1 349.4 21.8
2013 Adrian Peterson 14 279 1266 10 29 171 1 238.7 17.1
2011 M. Jones-Drew 16 343 1606 8 43 374 3 307.0 19.2
2012 M. Jones-Drew 6 86 414 1 14 86 1 76.0 12.7
2009 Chris Johnson 16 358 2006 14 50 503 2 396.9 24.8
2010 Chris Johnson 16 316 1364 11 44 245 1 276.9 17.3

In each instance, the runnerís numbers took a significant hit in production even if he managed to play most of the season like Murray and Johnson. All told these five saw a 48% drop in fantasy points despite only two of the five missed significant games (Foster, MJD).

So what are we to do with Henry in 2021?

On the plus side the man is a warrior. Heís been in uniform for 78 of 80 games over five years and started 31 of the past 32 games. Heís rushed for 3,567 yards and 33 touchdowns over that span. Heís touched the ball 713 times. Heís tough as nails and runs over defensive backs and linebackers. Thatís also one of the worries when choosing him in the top-three (current ADP 3.7) of your draft.

Heís also not part of the passing game which likely wonít change with the addition of All-Pro Julio Jones and a quarterback in Ryan Tannehill, who doesnít use his backs that way. In 2020, Tannehill threw just 48-of-468 passes to his running backs (12.4%). That wasnít a fluke - itís by design. In 2019 the Titans threw 64 passes to RBs (of 428 targets) even with Dion Lewis on the roster.

The most important factor hanging over all of this, is the history of injuries to running backs from overuse.

The most recent example of overuse is Christian McCaffrey. He only ran the ball 506 times in 2018-19, but also saw a whopping 266 targets and caught 223. Thatís over 700 touches in two seasons. Then in 2020 he played just three games due to injury. The pattern is all too familiar. Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it. Donít let that be you Ö or at least be prepared.

The point is, while there is no sure thing, the statistics show selecting Henry in the top-five isn't without major injury risk. Adding a handcuff in Brian Hill (formerly of Atlanta) or second-year Darrynton Evans if he can beat out Hill for the backup role, is an absolute must.

Or my preferred plan would be to grab a lighter-used Alvin Kamara (just 522 touches since 2019) instead.