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Analyzing the Case of Derrick Henry: Why a drop off is expected

Tennessee Tiatns v Indianapolis Colts Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Running back Derrick Henry has not only been a beast, but also has been the main reason for the Tennessee Titan's success over the past 3 seasons. He has established himself as the best and most consistent running back in the NFL, missing just one game of the last 36, while leading the NFL in both rushing yards and rushing touchdowns for 2 years in a row now. Henry’s ability to run the ball allowed the Titans to deploy a masterful play-action passing game (Tennessee led the league in play-action passes% with 35.8%, by far the most) led by reinvigorated quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who takes advantage of the stacked boxes and the advantageous matchups left on the perimeter. Derrick Henry is the reason why the Titans have suddenly become an elite offense and the only threat to the Colts in the AFC South.

This success, however, comes with an insane usage of and dependence on Henry. Over the past two seasons, Henry had 303 and 378 carries respectively, both numbers leading the league. This type of usage on a running back has been seen plenty of times before, and what has to be worrying for the Titans is what typically happens after a running back has to endure so many touches in such a short span of time.

History has not been kind to cases similar to that of Henry over the past decade. I analyzed the before and after numbers of running backs with similar usage numbers, to see whether a drop-off on Henry’s performance could be expected for the upcoming season. I took the analyzed running backs 3 seasons with the most usage and then compared them with the season after that, and the results are not encouraging for the Titans.

Comparison of RB before/after top 3 usage

/////////////////////////// Attempts Yards per Season YPC TDs/16
/////////////////////////// Attempts Yards per Season YPC TDs/16
Derrick Henry (Last 3) 896 1542 5.16 15
Adrian Peterson (08-10) 960 1480 4.63 13.33
Adrian Peterson 11 208 870 4.18 12
Jamaal Charles (12-14) 750 1276.3 5.11 8.67
Jaamal Charles 15 71 364 5.13 4
Steven Jackson (08-10) 907 1233 4.08 17
Steven Jackson 11 260 1145 4.4 5
Todd Gurley (16-18) 813 1147 4.23 12
Todd Gurley 19 223 857 3.84 12
DeMarco Murray (12-14) 770 1209.7 4.71 8.67
DeMarco Murray 15 193 702 3.64 6
LeSean McCoy (12-14) 826 1255.3 4.56 5.33
LeSean McCoy 15 203 895 4.41 3

Of course, every running back is different, but the fact is that other than Ladanian Tomlinson, all running backs since the turn of the millennium have seen some sort of drop-off after 3 continuous seasons of above-average usage. Depending on a running back to carry the entire load of an offense is an ill-advised practice, as most of the best offensive teams are adopting a running back by committee approach to keep the backs fresh. Certainly, if you have a Top 5 running back like Henry, Barkley, or Cook, trying to focus the offense around them is not a bad choice, but the Titan's dependence on what Henry does for the offense is beyond what other teams do. On average, after 3 years of continuous high usage, the running back’s numbers decline drastically.

What to expect from Henry this year

//////////////////////////// Attempts Yards Per Season YPC TDs/16
//////////////////////////// Attempts Yards Per Season YPC TDs/16
Average 3 most used Seasons 279.22 1266.94 4.55 10.83
Average Season After 193 805.5 4.27 7
Drop Off -30.88% -36.42% -6.29% -35.38%
Henry's Expected 2021 season 206.44 980.38 4.84 9.69

There are specific cases that defy this logic. For example, Adrian Peterson, after having a poor 2011 season, came back and took the league by storm in 2012, rushing for over 2K yards and averaging an astounding 6 YPC. There is also the example of what is happening with the new generation of running backs. Saquon Barkley, perhaps the most-hyped running back prospect I can remember, missed almost all of last season after a torn ACL and was not very effective the year before that during his sophomore campaign. Young star Christian McCaffrey was banged up and unable to play most of last season after more than 700 combined touches over the two seasons before. Alvin Kamara has also struggled to remain at 100% over the course of his 4-year career. Running back is also the position where most injuries tend to happen, not only because of high usage rates. Take for example what happened to Marlon Mack last season, who tore his Achilles tendon in Week 1.

Taking a look at the percentage of the team’s carries during the past season, we can clearly see just how lost the Titans’ offense would be without their main star’s elite production.

Now, unfortunately, Henry will most likely not regress that much, as he has a freakish frame that is more than capable of withstanding the insane amount of beating it takes, but the Titans are playing with fire here. The running backs on the roster other than Henry are not nearly as scary, with Darrynton Evans and Jeremy McNichols having a combined 63 carries for 262 yards for their entire career. The drop-off the Titans’ offense faces if their star player misses some time or fails to maintain his All-Pro performance is worrying, and the fact that the Titans did not acquire a proven backup at the position to help take some weight of Henry’s shoulders is not a good sign.

In conclusion, keep an eye out for Derrick Henry this season, as if the historical trend continues, his production will sharply decline, which will mean that the Titans will be lost without him, and that is great news for the Colts, who will most likely be battling them for the AFC South crown.