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Derrick Henry
AP
NFL Player Profile

Is Derrick Henry worthy of a top-5 draft pick?

by Ian Hartitz
Updated On: May 14, 2020, 11:05 am ET

We’re in the thick of the NFL offseason and it’s officially time to start fantasy football prep. I’ll be answering the biggest questions heading into the 2020 season; this is part of that series.

Henry was the NFL's triple-crown rushing winner in 2019, setting league-high marks in carries (303), rushing yards (1,540) and rushing touchdowns (16). Since the 1970 NFL merger the only triple-crown rushing winners have been: O.J. Simpson (1973, 1975), Walter Payton (1977), Earl Campbell (1980), Charles White (1987), Emmitt Smith (1995), Shaun Alexander (2005), DeMarco Murray (2014) and Adrian Peterson (2015).

The incredible season was spearheaded by an absolutely bonkers finish that saw Henry gain over 150 total yards and find the end zone 12 times in his final nine games. The 6-foot-3 and 247-pound monster has demonstrated a penchant for getting stronger as the season goes on throughout his career:

  • September: 3.87 yards per carry
  • October: 3.87
  • November: 5.87
  • December: 5.38
  • January: 5.2

The Titans slapped the franchise tag on Henry in an effort to find the same level of team success in 2020. Nobody is exactly expecting Henry to do anything except rack up numbers again ... but is he in a good enough position to warrant a top-five selection in fantasy drafts?

What follows is a breakdown on Henry's projection for next season.

There are few players in the league scarier than Henry

Henry is absolutely terrifying as an athlete. Per Player Profiler, he possesses elite marks in Speed Score (97th percentile), Burst Score (87th) and SPARQ-x Score (81st), which have regularly been on display throughout his career. Overall, Henry owns two of the five seasons in which a RB has averaged more than four yards after contact per attempt since 2010 (PFF).

Henry is and always has been an incredible rusher. However, his ability in the pass game perhaps deserves a bit more credit. Henry won't be confused with Christian McCaffrey or Alvin Kamara as a receiver anytime soon, although only Austin Ekeler (8.6), Kyle Juszczyk (8.2), Miles Sanders (8.1) and Kareem Hunt (7.9) have averaged more yards per target than Henry (7.5) among 69 RBs with at least 50 targets since 2017.

Does Henry have the best hands in the world? No. He's dropped 7-of-74 targets (9%) in the regular season since entering the league in 2016 (PFF). Still, it's not like we've seen him perform at another level of bad. The likes of Todd Gurley (16.2%), Devin Singletary (14.7%), Phillip Lindsay (14.6%), Dalvin Cook (11.7%), Dion Lewis (10.7%) and Ezekiel Elliott (10%) all posted worse drop rates in 2019.

We have a genetic freak with generational (I hate that word but in this case it's true) tackle-breaking ability and enough long speed to run away from defensive backs. I'm not saying the Titans need to make Henry the focus of their passing attack, but there's no reason why this man can't get three designed targets per game in an effort to unleash him in the open field.

Henry has never had more than 24 targets in a season. Luckily, he might just have a chance to build on this piece of his game in 2020.

Henry's already huge workload has room to grow

The idea that Henry is a game-script dependent back is a bit exaggerated. He had at least 16 touches in every single contest last season despite at times losing snaps to Dion Lewis in negative game script situations. Ultimately Henry played at least 60% of the offense's snaps in 13-of-18 games.

There's a decent chance Henry again misses out on some obvious pass-down work to third-round pick Darrynton Evans, who flashed the ability to function as a true receiver in the slot during his time at Appalachia State. Evans posted a plenty-respectable 21-195-5 receiving line in 2019 and possesses more of a scat-back mold at 5-foot-10 and 203-pounds with a modest 27th-percentile BMI.

Still, it wouldn't be shocking to see Henry get an early chance to stay in on third downs if Evans doesn't immediately impress and/or struggle with pass protection.

Worst case scenario for Henry fantasy investors: the rookie winds up working as Lewis 2.0. Even then, we can still project Henry for a league-high mark in rush attempts to go along with (maybe?) 2-3 targets per game.

In 2019 that workload was good enough to enable Henry as the PPR RB5. We shouldn't necessarily expect him to take much of a step back in 2020.

The Titans' workhorse should be the consensus fantasy RB6

There are only five RBs that I would take ahead of Henry in fantasy drafts of all shapes and sizes:

  • Christian McCaffrey, who nearly broke fantasy football in 2019 and now has a QB that is one of the league's most-willing check-down artists.
  • Saquon Barkley, who boasts a similar rush attempt projection as Henry, but has a true every-down role and much higher pass-game floor.
  • Ezekiel Elliott, who barely comes off the field for an offense that just finished as one of 11 units to average at least 6.5 yards per play in a single season ... and somehow looks better on paper entering 2020.
  • Dalvin Cook, who has 300-carry potential underneath run-game wizard Gary Kubiak, and he also nearly had as many targets in 2019 (63) as Henry has had in his entire career (74).
  • Alvin Kamara, who played through an ankle injury for much of 2019 ... and still finished as the RB8 in PPR per game. Only Todd Gurley, Le'Veon Bell and Barkley averaged more PPR per game than Kamara from 2017-2018.

Ryan Tannehill was quite literally functioning as the league's most-efficient QB for a large portion of last season. He figures to regress somewhat ... but even then we've still seen Henry put the team on his back with Marcus Mariota under center on plenty of occasions.

Replacing RT Jack Conklin with incumbent backup OT Dennis Kelly should be an upgrade in terms of pass protection, although PFF graded the former player as the league's No. 5 overall tackle in run blocking. Luckily, Henry has already proven more than capable of enabling a lackluster front. The Titans boasted the league's ninth-worst offense in yards before contact per rush ... but were the class of the NFL when it came to yards after contact per rush thanks to their beastly RB.

We should confidently be able to project Henry for more total touches than the likes of Aaron Jones, Austin Ekeler, Joe Mixon, Nick Chubb, Kenyan Drake, Josh Jacobs and Miles Sanders, who seem to round out the potential top of the class ranks. While each of those players also figure to see more targets, they're in quasi-committee systems themselves.

Henry is the only back from that group that isn't competing with anybody other than a rookie. It takes a special coach and offense to truly build around Henry and make him the identity of the team. That's what the Titans did in 2019, and they've brought back every key decision maker in 2020 to do so again. Henry is my clear-cut RB6 in both full-, half-and no-point per reception leagues.

Ian Hartitz

All things NFL. Great day to be great. You can follow Ian on Twitter @Ihartitz.