NFL star Derrick Henry in fantasy football class of his own

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Derrick Henry’s offseason workout videos, like his humiliation of would-be tacklers, is the stuff of legend. The living sculpture of the man is impressive in every conceivable way, and — against all odds — he’s humble. 

Henry is a man though. A 27-year-old grown ass man, to be precise. And he’s seen 827 touches over the past two seasons, including the past couple postseasons. Nearly 95 percent of Henry’s touches since the start of the 2019 season have been rushing attempts. It’s an astounding total made doubly astounding in an era of ever-pass heavy offenses largely abandoning the three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust offensive model of yesteryear. 

The Titans’ mammoth rusher has 782 rushes in two years. For a dash of perspective, consider the Jaguars as a team have had 726 rushing attempts over the past two seasons. Every Dolphins running back combined to run the ball 777 times over that stretch. Houston’s entire backfield was four carries short of Henry’s total since 2019. 

The uniqueness of Henry’s workload cannot be overstated. The late Walter Payton was the last player to lead the NFL in carries three years in a row. He did this in the late 1970s, when grounding and pounding was the centerpiece to nearly every offense. Henry maintaining his rushing attempt pace in 2021, with the league’s new 17-game season, would make him the oldest player in NFL history to carry the ball more than 400 times in a season. 

His breathtaking workload has seemingly taken no toll on this living, breathing battering ram. Henry has missed two games in five seasons. Defenders come and go — sliding helplessly off Henry’s massive frame or dodging him altogether — and Henry remains, bursting through the offensive line, creating something where there is nothing, leaving linebackers and cornerbacks and safeties with hands on hips, staring in disbelief at the mountain of a man as he chugs into the end zone, unimpeded, as if he were conducting a one-man walk through in an empty stadium. 

Henry, in short, is the most remarkable player of his generation. 

Questioning how long Henry can keep up his mind-boggling workload seems sacrilegious to those who have witnessed the totality of his domination. Betting against Henry has been an errand for the most foolish fool — the believer in numbers who’s certain no one — even the great Derrick Lamar Henry, Jr. — can escape the yawning jaws of regression. This is the week he falters, they cry out in vain. This is the month. This is the year. Just watch. They’re left looking as befuddled as the poor defenders Henry throws aside like a hyper-competitive adult barreling through a fourth grade flag football game. 

It’s uncomfortable to raise the prospect of Henry’s decline. I’m not banking on Henry falling off the proverbial cliff in 2021; if I have a top-three pick in best ball leagues, I’m taking Henry and moving on. My rational brain can take a seat.

But we know how this goes. A runner is untouchable until he’s not. He smashes through tackles and dodges slow footed defenders and makes the impossible seem possible until he doesn’t. He gets up from big hits and awkward tackles until he doesn’t. Every human has an infuriatingly fragile body. Even Derrick Henry. 

Comps For The Incomparable 

Historical comparisons are worthy of examination when we’re asking questions about when a player might reach the inevitable dropoff point in his career. There are no recent historical comps for the sort of workload Henry has seen over these past two seasons, making this exercise slightly more difficult and perhaps less informative and actionable. Nevertheless: Below are the past 10 running backs to go into their age-27 season after seeing more than 300 carries the year before. It’s the best we can do in seeking comparisons for an incomparable player.  

Player

Age

Year

Rushing attempts

Fantasy finish

Larry Johnson

27

2007

416

RB2

Willie Parker

27

2007

321

RB5

Clinton Portis

27

2008

342

RB8

Michael Turner

27

2009

178

RB24

Steven Jackson

27

2010

330

RB14

Maurice Jones-Drew

27

2012

86

RB53

Arian Foster

27

2013

121

RB46

Marshawn Lynch

27

2013

301

RB5

DeMarco Murray

27

2015

192

RB15

LeSean McCoy

27

2015

203

RB20

It’s a maddeningly mixed bag, as you may have guessed. We have Larry Johnson’s unholy 2007 workload the year after Kansas City saw fit to give him 336 totes; we have 27-year-old Steven Jackson being force fed the rock for the fifth straight season; we see Maurice Jones-Drew reaching what would be the end of his tremendous run as Jacksonville’s workhorse; we see DeMarco Murray changing teams, struggling with injuries, and falling into a timeshare on his way to a disappointing campaign; and we have Michael Turner faltering after the first big workload of his career. 

Adrian Peterson, who knows something about massive backfield workloads, said last year that Henry’s size and running style have helped him — and will help him — avoid the punishment other backs endure. “He’s one of those guys that doesn’t take a lot of punishment. He’s punishing other guys,” Peterson told ESPN. “There’s a big difference when you’re the guy initiating the contact and guys try to tackle you low. It helps your body if you’re in a position to carry the ball 200, 300 times.”

Body types, offensive schemes, previous workloads, and myriad other factors vary from runner to runner in the chart above. Perhaps none of these backs maintained the sort of physical conditioning for which Henry has become Twitter famous. Running backs who played 15 years ago didn’t benefit from the mechanical precision of the diets and workout regimens of today’s players, playing in a relative Dark Age of sports technology and analytics. NFL teams in the early 2000s weren’t monitoring a player’s every step, every breath, every heartbeat, in hopes of optimizing his gameday readiness. Former Seahawks running back Shaun Alexander, who carried the ball 424 times in Seattle’s 2005 Super Bowl run, said Henry has benefited from these advances. 

“Derrick’s body is like a gift from heaven,” Alexander said last year. “He has to take care of his body and make sure that it’s always restoring itself as fast as possible. With technology and science, you see the cold tubs, hot tubs, frost machines, infrared saunas — all of these things bring people’s bodies back faster. It has to be a part of your life. Health and science is getting wiser and they can recover faster.”

I asked John Glennon, a longtime Titans beat writer for Broadway Sports, about Henry’s usage since the start of the 2019 season — a common topic at Titans headquarters. “Henry’s incredible workload is a topic that’s brought up frequently,” Glennon said. “[Titans head coach] Mike Vrabel’s usual response is that the number of Henry’s carries depends on opponent, defensive scheme, and game situation each week. The Titans do a nice job of giving Henry down time during the practice week, letting him recover from all the physicality he faces. But the fact is that Henry — due to both his size and his tremendous physical conditioning — has proven very durable, missing just one game over the past three seasons.”

I’m skeptical that Henry’s usage hinges on an opponent’s defensive scheme since there is no defensive scheme that can stop him. Game situation — or game script — is another story. Henry averaged 19 rushing attempts in five Tennessee losses last season, about seven fewer than he saw in wins. In 2019, he saw 5.6 fewer carries per game in Titans losses — games in which the team couldn’t maintain run-friendly game script. 

NASHVILLE, TENNESSEE - JANUARY 10: Quarterback Ryan Tannehill #17 hands off the ball to running back Derrick Henry #22 of the Tennessee Titans during their AFC Wild Card Playoff game against the Baltimore Ravens at Nissan Stadium on January 10, 2021 in Nashville, Tennessee. The Ravens defeated the Titans 20-13.  (Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)

Derrick Henry has led the NFL in carries the past two seasons. Will he make it three straight in 2021? (Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)

On behalf of every fantasy manager who squirms in their seat when presented with Henry’s 2019-2020 carry total, I asked Glennon if there’s any universe in which the Titans throttle their workhorse’s workload in 2021. The answer, Glennon said, might be found in the team’s offensive personnel changes. 

Losing Jonnu Smith to New England in free agency could have an outsized impact on Tennessee’s zone-based rushing attack and the team’s personnel packages. Smith, for the unaware, was Pro Football Focus’ 14th best blocking tight end in 2020. He was second among all tight ends in run blocking snaps in both 2019 and 2020. It’s Smith’s ability to maul people and open running lanes for Henry that has kept him from becoming an every-week fantasy starter, a trend that won’t change in New England. Metallica’s “Sad But True” is based on Smith’s excellent run blocking. Not many people know that. 

Though the run game should maintain continuity under new offensive coordinator Todd Downing — who was promoted from tight ends coach to fill Arthur Smith’s former gig — Smith’s departure and the addition of Julio Jones and Josh Reynolds could lead to far fewer two tight end sets in 2021. While Glennon predicted “another high-volume season for Henry,” his epic workload could “perhaps reduced just a bit because of increased three-receiver sets” utilized by the Titans. 

More three-receiver sets would be a marked shift in Tennessee’s offense. In 2020, only Minnesota used three wideouts at a lower rate than the Titans, who had a trio of receivers on the field for 38 percent of their plays, miles below the league average of 60 percent. Arthur Smith in 2020 had three wideouts in the formation on just 29 percent of the team’s running plays; only the 49ers and Vikings had a lower rate. Beefy tight ends have been the order of the day for Tennessee over the past two seasons, and Henry has reaped the benefits. 

More Pass Game Involvement For Henry? 

It would be quite the task for Tennessee to get more run heavy in 2021. The Titans have had the league’s third lowest neutral pass rate in each of the past two seasons, bludgeoning opponents with a heavy dose of Henry when the game was close or the Titans held the lead. 

For all of Henry’s usage, almost none of it has been in the pass game, much to the chagrin of DFS players who wonder aloud — with much fury and loathing and spittle on their lips — why Henry doesn’t get a few screen passes when the Titans are forced into a pass heavy script. He had a meager 19 catches on 31 targets last year, seeing more than four targets in one game, a Week 6 shootout win against Houston. Henry has had more than three targets in a game just thrice in his five NFL seasons. 

“Henry just isn’t a natural in the pass-catching department, despite the fact he works extremely hard at that facet of the game,” Glennon said. “He’s the kind of back that needs two or three steps to get the engine rolling, as opposed to the quick, immediate cuts that are required of pass-catchers. Henry has been effective at times in the screen game, but opponents last year kept an especially close eye on him and limited his production.”

For the segment of fantasy football Twitter that has long waited for Henry’s workload to diminish, the question has lingered: Who among Tennessee’s other running backs will take over as the main pass catcher out of the backfield? This offseason is the second straight in which Darrynton Evans has taken that mantle. 

“I can’t imagine Evans getting more than 5-10 carries per game if Henry stays healthy, but I do think he can be a bigger contributor in the passing attack,” Glennon said, adding Evans’ rookie campaign was a “wash” thanks to the weird COVID offseason and a nagging hamstring injury that limited him to all of five games. “In fact, he spent a good chunk of the OTAs doing cross-training work at wide receiver — an option the Titans could use to get his breakaway speed on the field more often.”

Evans excelled in his limited passing game work at Appalachian State, catching 21 passes for for 198 yards and five touchdowns in his final collegiate season. He’s quick and agile, a destitute man’s Alvin Kamara. He could be a fine NFL running back one day. But he’ll likely be without fantasy use until and unless the indestructible Henry gets dinged up this year. 

Don’t Fear The Workload

There are exceptions to rules, and humans who defy what rational thought defines as possible. Calvin Johnson was made in this mold. One day — soon, perhaps — we’ll group Kyle Pitts in the same mold. One thing is certain: Derrick Henry fits said mold. 

Henry’s strangely light usage in his first three pro seasons might have made it possible for the Titans to treat him like a running back from football’s Ice Age. Henry saw 110 carries in 2016, 176 in 2017, and 215 in 2018. Former Tennessee head coach Mike Mularkey had no idea what he had in Henry, and it showed. A glut of rushing attempts in those early years, however, may have made Henry’s 2019-2020 run impossible. 

The continuity of the Titans’ post-Arthur Smith offense, the team remaining keenly aware of the toll of Henry’s workload, and a good-enough number of historical comps who withstood and produced with more than 300 carries in their age-27 season are enough for me to believe Henry has at least one more year of ground domination left in his tree trunk legs. 

Maybe I’ll write this same piece next summer, asking the same questions about how anyone — even Henry — can withstand the beating of 300 to 400 rushing attempts year after year. And maybe I’ll tell myself — as I do today — to stop being rational when analyzing Derrick Henry.

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