‘Hunting for unicorns’ — Why finding the next Derrick Henry might be a fool’s errand

Eric Edholm
·13 min read

Is Derrick Henry one of a kind? Or is he a product of a hefty workload and a strong surrounding cast? Are there other sledgehammers out there who could give their team the kind of power and impact that Henry provides the Tennessee Titans? Perhaps a differently shaped back could produce at Henry’s level if given the proper chance.

On top of all of that, how good is Henry in relation to the league’s other backs? And do his back-to-back brilliant seasons change the way running backs get scouted?

The answer to these questions depends on who you ask.

To some, Henry is singular. In a golden age of dual-threat quarterbacks, where passes represented nearly 60 percent of the offensive plays this season, Henry is a throwback to an era before running backs were attenuated by positional timeshares and slotted into task-based roles.

“Derrick Henry is one of the best running backs to ever play this game, and he's in the zone right now,” Ravens defensive lineman Calais Campbell said this week.

Had you counted only the second half of Henry’s 2020 season, he still would have ranked third in the NFL in rushing yards. Only the last four games? Even so, Henry’s quarter-season rushing total would rank 23rd league-wide.

All 16 games will be counted in league annals, however, and by that measure Henry accomplished something this season that feels like a time capsule: 2,027 rush yards, the fifth-highest single-season total in NFL history.

Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry became the NFL's first 2,000-yard back in eight years. (AP Photo/Eric Christian Smith)
Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry became the NFL's first 2,000-yard back in eight years. (AP Photo/Eric Christian Smith)

Even the “running backs don’t matter” crowd must acknowledge what Henry has accomplished over the past few seasons, rushing for 4,598 yards and 42 TDs over his past 38 games (including playoffs). It’s something we associate more with the days of O.J. Simpson and Eric Dickerson than in this pass-first era.

Henry has led the Titans to the playoffs for a second straight year, and Sunday’s wild-card matchup will be his third game against the Ravens in the past 365 days. In the first two meetings, Henry ran for a combined 328 yards, threw for a TD (in last year’s divisional-round playoff game) and scored the walk-off TD (in the Titans’ Week 11 overtime win).

The Ravens actually contained Henry for much of the game earlier this season, holding him to 2 yards or fewer on 11 of his first 13 carries and even briefly knocking Henry out of the game for a few plays in the second half. On his 28th carry, Henry burst free for the 29-yard game-winner.

Critics say Henry isn’t special as a receiver (11 catches for 30 yards in his past 11 games). Strange as it might sound, he’s not considered a great pass blocker, despite his shocking mass. And Henry also has fumbled three times in his past five games.

Plus, there’s also the looming worry: When will he hit the wall? At some point, his heavy labor figures to catch up to Henry (who turned 27 earlier this week), as it does many backs before the age of 30.

There’s also the positional value. Many NFL teams place RBs lower on the importance hierarchy.

“Do running backs matter? I mean, yeah they can. But I would say wide receivers matter, too,” one assistant general manager told Yahoo Sports. “Look at Buffalo getting Stefon Diggs and the difference he made there. Better yet, look what happened to Houston when they traded [DeAndre] Hopkins. Traded for a running back, no less!

“Ask Tom Brady if receivers matter. He had none in New England last year. He has a ton in Tampa Bay this year. The Patriots couldn’t generate big plays this season, but Tom suddenly can with Tampa.”

Still, many fans want their favorite NFL team to find their own King Henry. Is there another out there — in the 2021 NFL draft or beyond? And even if there is, does a team really need him?

A quick look at Henry’s unusual combination of traits make it hard to imagine his doppelgänger strolling along anytime soon.

What makes Derrick Henry such a rare athlete

There are several things that make Henry a rare force, a player who has at least entered the MVP discussion in an era when running backs seldom get much mention for that award. (Only four backs have received MVP votes since 2008.)

First, there’s the size. Henry is 6-foot-3 — extremely tall for a back — and 247 pounds. Since 1999, only one true tailback was heavier at the NFL’s scouting combine than Henry: 267-pound Brandon Jacobs, who rushed for 5,094 yards over nine NFL seasons, mostly with the New York Giants.

Henry has surpassed Jacobs’ career rushing total (5,860) in five seasons. He has achieved that mark with a sledgehammer style, although Henry can get to the edge (he ran a 4.54 40-yard dash at the combine) and even toss poor, unsuspecting defenders aside with vicious stiff arms via his 33-inch vines.

Tackling Henry, Yahoo Sports’ Henry Bushnell found out last year, is no fun at all.

“He is his own blocker,” Ravens nose tackle Brandon Williams said.

In addition to his size, Henry is also the league’s best workhorse. Of the 27 games this season with one back carrying the ball 25 or more times, Henry was the author of seven of those.

After totaling 409 touches in 18 games (regular season and playoffs combined) in 2019, he enters the playoffs this season with 397 touches in 16 games. That’s 806 touches over the past two seasons combined. The next-closest player over that stretch is the Minnesota Vikings’ Dalvin Cook with 705.

The Titans don't stop feeding Derrick Henry carries when they're trailing, as they did frequently in their loss to the Green Bay Packers. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
The Titans don't stop feeding Derrick Henry carries when they're trailing, as they did frequently in their loss to the Green Bay Packers. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

Most teams tend to ditch the run game when they’re down big. Not the Titans, who didn’t go away from Henry much when they were trailing this season. They kept feeding him. He was too big a part of their offense not to, one might conclude.

The Titans ran 1,260 offensive plays this season. Of those, 378 were handoffs to Henry — 30 percent right on the nose.

On plays after the first quarter when the Titans were down two or three scores (deficits between nine and 24 points), they handed the ball to Henry 71 of a possible 261 plays. That’s a usage rate of 27.2 percent, a scant dropoff.

This rate was immensely different than any other RB this season. Cook came the closest to matching Henry’s usage, earning 24.7 percent of the Vikings’ touches this season and 18.4 percent of the touches with Minnesota trailing two or three scores after the first quarter.

So in order to find a Henry-like back, an NFL team must find one with unusual physical traits and athleticism; one who can handle an extensive, enervating, week-in-and-week-out workload; and that team must also be committed to featuring that player in ways that only the Titans do with Henry.

“Deciding you want the next Derrick Henry is one thing; finding him is another,” the assistant GM said. “I don’t think setting out with that as your draft strategy makes much sense. You don’t go hunting for unicorns, right? I haven’t seen too many [backs like Henry] over the years I’ve been doing this.”

Is there a Derrick Henry clone ... anywhere?

The closest thing to Henry, physically speaking, currently in the league might be one team’s third-stringer. The Green Bay Packers used a second-round draft pick on Boston College’s A.J. Dillon, a 250-pound haul truck who has been third on the team’s depth chart much of his rookie season.

We got a glimpse of what he can do in a featured role — coincidentally against Henry’s Titans in Week 16 — when Dillon rushed 21 times for 124 yards and two scores in the 40-14 win. Henry, meanwhile, was held relatively in check with 98 yards on 23 carries and a long run of 10.

AJ Dillon's breakout game for the Packers came against the Titans, but he'll have to wait for a Derrick Henry-like workload over a whole season. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)
AJ Dillon's breakout game for the Packers came against the Titans, but he'll have to wait for a Derrick Henry-like workload over a whole season. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)

Packers head coach Matt LaFleur was the Titans’ offensive coordinator in 2018. For parts of that season, Henry shared carries with Dion Lewis; through the first 12 games, Henry carried the ball 128 times for 474 yards to Lewis’ 135 carries for 464 yards.

It wasn’t until the final four games that season that LaFleur unleashed Henry in a featured role at 21.8 carries per game. It likely would take the Packers’ Aaron Jones to walk in free agency this offseason for Dillon to have the chance to earn a Henry-like workload.

One of the league’s other king-sized backs, Baltimore’s Gus Edwards, will square off against Henry on Sunday. The 238-pound Edwards ran a 4.53 40 at Rutgers’ pro day in 2018, so he comes close to matching Henry’s physical traits. Like Dillon, Edwards must scrap for carries in Baltimore’s backfield. It’s a familiar story in a league where the majority of teams split up their carries among multiple backs.

The 2021 NFL draft class features some bigger backs of note, even if there might not be a true Henry clone among them. The closest might be Alabama’s Najee Harris.

Harris followed the power-back tradition established by Henry and Bo Scarbrough at Bama, returning to school for his senior year to turn in his finest season to date in 2020. The 232-pound Harris has shown a skill for running through — or even vaulting — defenders and possesses the traits to handle a big workload.

Other bigger-back candidates in the 2021 class include North Carolina’s 220-pound Javonte Williams, Oklahoma’s 221-pound Rhamondre Stevenson, Ohio State’s 225-pound Trey Sermon, UAB’s 228-pound Spencer Brown and the Louisiana duo of 218-pound Elijah Mitchell and 222-pound Trey Ragas.

There’s also intrigue in Harris’ Alabama teammate, 224-pound Brian Robinson, who isn’t as talented but will enter the NFL with a far lighter workload — 281 career touches over four seasons entering Monday’s national title game, to Harris’ 689 touches.

That’s higher than Henry’s three-year total (619 touches) at Bama. If you add those to his NFL touches, he’s at 2,005 since 2013.

For various reasons, there might not be a first-round running back in 2021. Harris, Williams, Stevenson and Sermon all could go on Day 2 (Rounds 2 and 3) this spring.

Alabama RB Najee Harris (22) might be the closest thing to Derrick Henry in the college game. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
Alabama RB Najee Harris (22) might be the closest thing to Derrick Henry in the college game. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

“Day 2 is really the sweet spot for those guys the last few years,” one national scout said. “Those picks have been the best values. Henry went mid-second. Dalvin Cook went mid-second. [Nick] Chubb and [Jonathan] Taylor, both second-rounders.”

The national scout added: “We don’t have a hard-and-fast rule on [not using a first-round pick on a running back]. It’s more just a feel and [a determination] of how the board lays out and what [higher-priority position prospects] are still on the board. For whatever reason, it just seems like there’s always a run [on running backs on] Day 2.”

The assistant GM we spoke to says you can find good backs nearly anywhere.

“It’s easier to find good talent there without the high pick,” he said. “[Undrafted Jaguars rookie] James Robinson got, what, a $25,000 signing bonus? If I asked you, would you rather have him or [2020 Chiefs first-rounder] Clyde Edwards-Helaire on a first-round salary, I think I know what your answer might be.”

Pro Football Focus’ lead NFL analyst, Sam Monson, agrees. PFF’s WAR (Wins Over Replacement) metric gives us a window into the value of running backs being lower on the hole — and their numbers suggest that as good as Henry is, he’s not markedly better than the next-best back out there.

“Henry’s WAR this season is 0.25, which is 0.04 more than Dalvin Cook and Alvin Kamara,” Monsoon wrote in an email. “He’s the most valuable RB, but he's not an order of magnitude off the end of the scale.

“It is, however, an order of magnitude less than other positions. Davante Adams is almost four times higher at 0.9 WAR. Jaire Alexander is at 1.4. Aaron Donald at 0.7. Effectively, the data says that Derrick Henry is a product of his environment more than he is a product of being better than every other running back.”

Monson’s belief is that Henry benefitted from a better surrounding cast more than the cast benefitted from his breakout.

“When Marcus Mariota was at QB playing like crap, Henry was 11th in the league in rushing,” he said. “[Ryan] Tannehill comes in and has played at an elite level ever since, and Henry becomes unstoppable. That's not a coincidence.

“It's not to say that Henry isn't talented, or that on individual runs he can't make plays above and beyond expectation. But it's just that he moves the needle less than a crappy QB coming in would — for rushing production.”

Every running back has an expiration date

Back to that workload. At some point, Henry will break down. It’s the nature of the position.

In a perfect world, the Titans hope it’s sometime after the 2023 season, which is when the four-year, $50 million deal he signed in June runs out. The reality is that the Titans could move on from Henry before that, with dead-cap figures of $6 million (after the 2021 season) and $3 million (after the 2022).

If next season Henry keeps up the workload over his past two years, he’d close in on 2,000 NFL touches. The 2,000-touch mark represents something of a glass ceiling for backs in the minds of some talent evaluators, after which a back tends to wane, although others feel the mark might be closer to 2,500. College workloads must also be factored in.

Various studies commissioned by NFL teams and conducted by outside sources all point to a clear likelihood: Backs have expiration dates, and they’re more likely to fall off a cliff, production-wise and health-wise, than they are to drift downward precipitously.

There are notable exceptions. Adrian Peterson, the last back to run for more than 2,000 yards in the 2009 season before Henry did it this season, was pushing the 3,500-mark (college plus NFL) when he turned in a fairly incredible 2015 campaign.

Frank Gore has been one of the league’s greatest workhorses ever, averaging 233.4 carries over his incredible 16 NFL seasons. Along with Gore and Pederson, LeSean McCoy is the only other back to total more than 2,000 regular-season touches in the NFL since the start of 2011.

Still, these are the anomalies. That’s one big reason why backs are regularly rotated in the NFL and why few maintain featured roles past the age of 30.

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