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Projections For Derrick Henry in 2021

Jan 10, 2021; Nashville, Tennessee, USA; Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry (22) runs onto the field during pregame introductions before a AFC Wild Card playoff game against the Baltimore Ravens at Nissan Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports
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Do 2000-yard rushers fade badly the next season? Is King Henry a good fantasy bet for 2021?

In NFL history, 8 players have rushed for 2000 yards in a season:

With the rise of football-based analytics over the past 10-20 years, every fan knows about high usage and statistical-outlier seasons. A runner who gets 2000 yards in one season, is not going to repeat the feat the next year. But you have to wonder, how bad has it been for 2000-yd rushers? Have they tended to be used-up and broken-down the following season? Or have they still been good players?

What should we expect from Derrick Henry in 2021?

To get a start at answering that, let’s take a look at what the seven previous 2000-yard rushers did in their “N+1” season, the next season after 2k:

As we would expect, these players all declined significantly from their 2k season. But the surprise is how good they still were. All but one was still a thousand-yard back. Four out of seven still had 7+ TDs (three with double-digit TDs).

Let’s take a slightly deeper look at each of them.

O.J. Simpson

OJ had 60 less attempts the following season, but still led the league in attempts. Also he was named All-Pro. The *next* 2 seasons he led in yardage again (and yds-per-game), and once in rushing TDs, and made All-Pro. Here’s his next 3 seasons after 2k:

And then he was still a useful player after age 30, with three more seasons around 500 yards. Any expectation that he would have been washed-up after 2k, was wrong.

Eric Dickerson

Has anyone ever had the high-usage to start his career, that Dickerson had? 390 carries as a rookie, then 379 in his 2k season. A slight step back to 292, then 400 carries the next year.

The year after 2k was the first year Dickerson did NOT make All-Pro. But he still had 1200 yds and 12 TDs. And he went on to lead the league in rushing twice more, make All-Pro three more times, plus an additional Pro Bowl season, with 5 more thousand-yd seasons. Here’s Dickerson immediately after his 2k year:

Plus, three more seasons as a productive backup after age 30.

Another runner who was not “washed up” in the slightest.

Barry Sanders

Barry was the oldest of our 2000-yd rushers, at age 29. He walked away from the game after his age 30 season, ten years in the league and an automatic Hall Of Famer. He had almost 1500 yards that final season (the only one after his 2k year), made the Pro Bowl, and left all of us thinking that he could have kept playing had he chosen to. Even now part of me almost believes that Barry could walk-on to any (good) roster and knock off a thousand yards.

28 Sep 1997: Running back Barry Sanders #20 of the Detroit Lions carries the football during the Lions 26-15 win over the Green Bay Packers at the Pontiac Silverdome in Pontiac, Michigan. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Stockman /Allsport

(I’m going to take Terrell Davis out of order, at the end of this group)

Jamal Lewis

The battering ram. Every Ravens fan will fondly remember Jamal’s 2003 season.

He was not done after that. Four more thousand-yd seasons and a 900-yarder after 2k:

Plus, another 500-yd season as a backup at age 30.

Now I have to say, as a fan, it seemed to me that Jamal didn’t have quite the same explosion after 2003 that he did before. I remember in his 2k year he busted off 60-, 70- and 80-yard runs like it was nothing. He was a bomb that could detonate at any time. After 2003 he seemed a little more “ordinary”. But that’s just one fan’s impression. And I’m not sure the stats back me up: in 2006, his last year as a Raven, Jamal had a 50-yd run. And as a Brownie in 2007, 28yo Jamal busted off a 66-yd touchdown run. Clearly there was juice.

Regardless of perception, Jamal Lewis still had the strength, and he remained a useful player and a fantasy-relevant workhorse for years after 2k.

Chris Johnson

CJ2K made the Pro Bowl the next season, and had four more thousand-yd seasons after 2k:

Plus, two more seasons as a role-player round 7- and 800 yds. A good player for years after his big season.

Adrian Peterson

Our second-oldest 2000-yard man at age 27, All-Day went on to make the Pro Bowl the next year with 1200 yds and 10 TDs. Then he had his injury; then you’ll remember he returned like a thunderclap, leading the league in rushing and making All-Pro. Then another injury, then another return, with a thousand-yd season at age 33. He was still a useful player just last season, at age 35:

This is a weird career shape, really. Not what you usually see. Makes me think of Hall Of Famer John Riggins, who had a late-career resurgence as a high-volume bruiser with Joe Gibbs and the Hogs in Washington. Anyway, the point here is that All-Day was still useful & productive after his 2k season.

Terrell Davis

The lesson from the players above seems to be that a runner generally is not washed-up after his 2,000-yd campaign; not even close. But one guy clearly was. The great TD was absolutely washed after his 2000-yd campaign. He never again managed to play even 9 games.

TD had a comeback season at age 29 where he showed flashes of his old self: but he could not stay on the field. 100 yds in the season opener, then missed six games. 70 yards and 80 yards, then missed two games. He closed out the last five (his best game was against Seattle, 109 yds on 5.7 ypc) to finish with 700 yds thru 8 games – on pace for a very impressive season – but he couldn’t go on.

So, what was different about TD? He’s of particular interest as the most recent Hall Of Fame inductee from this group. And there was mild controversy around his induction: some Twitter whispers that TD wasn’t “worthy” of the Hall; that he was just a product of the famous Shanahan – Alex Gibbs system that churned out thousand-yard rushers by the bushel in the late 90s / early 00s.

The thing that stands out about Terrell Davis, is his usage for the two seasons culminating in his 2k year. But if you just look at his PFR page you’re not going to catch it. Here’s what you’ll see there:

That looks a little on the high end, but not super extreme compared to some guys on this list. Eric Dickerson did more. But what’s missing from this picture is that, in those two seasons Terrell Davis ALSO was carrying his team to the Super Bowl. He played basically another half-season. The complete picture, with postseason, is this:

(The “R” or “P” after the year denotes reg-season and postseason.)

Terrell Davis totaled 950 carries for 4800 yards across those two seasons, 1997-8. That’s preposterous. It’s unheard-of. And look how he got better in the postseason! Raised his yds-per-carry by half a yard into the ’97 playoffs, almost a full yard in ’98. 150 yards-per-game for another thousand yards, just in the playoffs across the two seasons! Super Bowl MVP in 97, and league MVP in 98.

This is why TD is in the Hall Of Fame (along with his 1996 All-Pro season, which is not even shown above). He was the most dominant force in the league. And, in my opinion, this is why TD was washed after his 2k season, where other players were not. 950 carries and 4800 yds in two seasons would crush anyone. It’s amazing he could still walk.

Remember the old Sesame Street song, about how one of these things is not like the other? All of the 2000-yard rushers were high-usage runners who were leaned-on heavily by their teams. But even among that group, TD stands out. He’s the thing that’s not like the others, because of the Broncos playoff success with him leading the way. Another half-season added on top of the wear-&-tear of a “normal” 2000-yd season.

Implications for King Henry

At the top we asked two questions:

Do 2000-yard rushers fade badly the next season?
Is King Henry a good fantasy bet for 2021?

After looking at the previous guys, looks like our quick-&-dirty answers are yes – and yes! The 2k rushers *do* tend to fade a lot from their big season; but they were so massively productive to begin with, they could fade a lot and still be useful fantasy players.

My plan going in was to use the before-&-after stats of the other 2000-yd rushers, to figure out how much the other runners declined on-average, and then use that to predict exactly how much Henry’s stats are likely to decline this upcoming season. But after looking at it, I think we can take Terrell Davis out of the group. His before-&-after stats drag down the group; and I think he’s not a good comp for Henry because of TD’s extra usage. Henry has led the league in yardage and rush TDs the past two seasons, similar to what TD did in 97-98; but his overall volume has not been like TD’s:

Derrick Henry

That’s a lot of work; but at the same time it’s 170 less carries and 750 less yardage than TD got in his two seasons of overuse.

If we exclude Terrell Davis, then as a group, in the season after their 2000-yd campaigns the other 7 rushers did:

92% of the games-played;
87% of the attempts-per-game;
75% of the yards-per-carry;
66% of the yards-per-game;
61% of the total yards and TDs.

If we plug that in for King Henry – and remember we have a *17* game season now, not a 16-game one – then we get:

15.6 games played (That’s 91.5*17: So we would expect him to miss a game or two.)
314 rush attempts
1259 yards
10.4 TDs

That would represent a decline from Henry’s production the last two seasons. But even those stats he would have been the 3rd-leading rusher last season (top 5 in yards each of the last 4), and top-10 in rushing TDs.

If you’re a fantasy player, I think even with a normal predictable amount of regression, King Henry is still a fairly safe fantasy play. The bigger questions about the Tennessee offense will be how it changes with Offensive Coordinator Arthur Smith jumping to Atlanta. Will they become more pass-heavy with Julio Jones in the lineup? That’s something everyone will have their eyes on, when Tennessee’s season begins. But I think the data shows that wear-&-tear on Henry should not be a huge concern for fantasy players.


Submitted by JimZipCode, a proud member of the Russell Street Report forums

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