Is Derrick Henry in Elite Company?

May 18, 2021

At 6-foot-3, 247 pounds, Derrick Henry is undoubtedly one of the most intimidating players in football. With measurables that would seem to put him somewhere on the defensive line or at linebacker, he is setting records as one of the best NFL running backs. But why don’t we see other running backs with this size come through the NFL as often? The simple answer is that there just aren’t that many

In 2018, Derrick Henry became just the seventh running back over 6’3” tall to rush for over 1,000 yards in a season. The other six? Eric Dickerson, Eddie George, Larry Csonka, Cookie Gilchrist, Brandon Jacobs, and Latavius Murray. A pretty good variety of careers in this group of players, but all respectable NFL players. So is Derrick Henry just another good running back, or is he up there with Eddie George and Eric Dickerson? 

Workload and Production

Among these seven players, only three have had a season averaging over 20 rushing attempts per game: George, Dickerson, and Henry. Even at their peak, none of the other running backs in this group had over 18.4 rushing attempts per game. And Henry has been the most efficient with his touches so far in his career. While Dickerson hovered around 4.5 yards per carry, and George saw just two seasons with over 4.0 yards per carry, Henry has already racked up back-to-back seasons of over 5.0 yards per carry. He has improved every year while taking on as much of a workload as you can ask for. 

What is also worth mentioning is the “late start” that Henry had in his career. Going into their age 27 seasons, here are the respective rushing totals for the three:

(stats via pro-football-reference.com)

 NameRushing AttemptsRushing Yards
Dickerson1,4656,968
George1,3605,365
Henry1,1825,860

What does this tell me? That Henry, compared to Dickerson and George, is actually more fresh going into his age 27 season. That’s 200-300 less game reps, collisions, broken tackles, etc. that Henry has had to endure. If Henry even averages just 4.4 yards per carry over this next season, he will blow past Dickerson’s rushing yard total, with around the same amount of attempts.

Fantasy Football Production

Now, to the most important part. How will Henry be able to keep his fantasy football production as an RB1 without any receiving work? The answer is simple: Just keep running the ball. Now, we can expect some touchdown regression. Maybe we can expect fewer touches as well. So let’s take 178 carries away from his 2020 production, valued at 5.4 yards per attempt. That would put Henry firmly at RB7 for the 2020 season. So let’s take away nine of his 17 rushing touchdowns from 2020, along with the rushing yards. That places Henry at RB20. Simply amazing. Derrick Henry’s floor is what we saw in 2018. A mid-to-low level RB2 and that is considering taking half of his carries and touchdowns away.

But what if he does start catching passes? What if he gets better? That’s something nobody wants to talk about. Is it likely? Probably not. But you never know.

When someone starts producing along with the elites, you have to start comparing him to the elites. Derrick Henry is not Brandon Jacobs or Latavius Murray. He’s not Larry Csonka or Cookie Gilchrist. He is elite; and in a couple of years, you’re going to be hearing him compared to Dickerson, George, and other all-time greats. 

Seven of the top 25 running backs in career rushing yards are over 6-foot-1 tall. Of those seven, all had at least three more 1,000 yard rushing seasons starting at their age 27 seasons. I expect similar, or better, production from Henry. I’m not telling you that he will be 35-years-old and rushing for 1,000 yards, but he should absolutely have at least a few highly productive, RB1 years left in him. The narrative that big running backs can’t produce for a long time is completely false. 

Burst

One of the most telling statistics for Derrick Henry in his production is his big-play ability. Nobody has more rushes of 20 or more yards than Henry since 2019. He is just built differently. Don’t think so? Just check who PlayerProfiler compares him to: https://www.playerprofiler.com/nfl/derrick-henry/.

Worst-Case Scenario

So what is the worst-case scenario for Derrick Henry, for fantasy purposes? Probably if he’s out of Tennessee in 2022, and joins a backfield with a legitimate pass-catching back. But is that so bad? We saw Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara both as RB1s in 2017. Tarik Cohen was an RB1, and Jordan Howard was an RB2 in 2018. Austin Ekeler was an RB1, and Melvin Gordon was an RB2 in 2019. Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt were both RB1s in 2020. Antonio Gibson and J.D. McKissic were both RB2s in 2020. Kenyan Drake and Chase Edmonds were both RB2s in 2020. 

I think you get the point. We have seen backfields support multiple fantasy-relevant players several times over the past few years. Even if his situation took a turn for the worst, Henry would still be a viable fantasy option every week. 

But there has been nothing to suggest that the Titans are going away from Derrick Henry after the 2021 season. Corey Davis moved on to the Jets, and the Titans now have Josh Reynolds as their WR2. They let Jonnu Smith walk, as well as Adam Humphries. That screams of an offense that is still going to run through Derrick Henry. Unless something drastically changes, Henry should be in line for a massive workload in 2021. 

What’s the Verdict?

For Henry owners? HOLD. Derrick Henry is absolutely a hold for dynasty owners with him on their team. Why? Because he’s one of the safest, plug-and-play, fantasy football assets right now. Enjoy the show he’s putting on. There are only several players everyone absolutely HATES to play against in fantasy football. And Henry is one of them. Unless you get an unbelievable offer for him, just keep him. He could end up playing, and producing at a respectable level, for several more years. 

For non-Henry owners? I’m not going to tell owners who don’t have him to overpay for him. But if you have someone who thinks he’s declining? Go buy him now, especially if you’re contending. He’s going to have great value for the next few years.