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Death, taxes, and Derrick Henry, few things are as inevitable as a healthy Henry threatening to lead the NFL in rushing and anchoring fantasy offenses. Henry's PPR per game finishes over the last four years:
- 2022- RB4
- 2021 - RB1
- 2020 - RB3
- 2019 - RB4
But a funny thing is happening. The fade on Henry in the 2023 preseason stretch is fierce. His Footballguys ADP is RB7, and his overall placement sits at 20th. It is even more baffling in Underdog, as he sits at 24th overall despite their 0.5 PPR scoring format. His positional placement for all flex players is in 0.5 PPR scoring per game in the same four-year span: 5th, 1st, 4th, 2nd.
There are reasons to be concerned. Primarily age, hitting his age 29 season. The infrastructure around the Titans offense is struggling, with the team moving on from longtime cornerstone left tackle Taylor Lewan, 2022 Pro Bowl center Ben Jones, and right guard Nate Davis. The team attempted to stem the bleeding by taking Peter Skornski in the first round and taking a shot on the Eagles' disappointed Andre Dillard in free agency. But the hits have kept coming, losing potential starting right tackle Nicholas Petit-Frere to a six-game gambling suspension.
The lack of experienced skill talent pushed the team to add DeAndre Hopkins. Robert Woods was a bust after the team traded for him to pair with Treylon Burks at wide receiver to try and fill the hole created by moving A.J. Brown. Tight end Austin Hooper was second on the team in targets but turned in one of his most disappointing career seasons. Hopkins will likely be the lead receiver, but the team needs Burks to step up into a significant role. The tight end room will be Chigoziem Okonkwo and rookie Josh Whyle.
But all of that is baked in.
Henry is falling into the third round in a format he has finished top five in for the last four seasons.
As much as we want to be ahead of the curve in fantasy, we often end up a year too late. 2021 Ezekiel Elliott was still going off the board fifth overall despite a 979-yard 2020 as a primary example. But Henry looks to be a case of consensus bailing a year early.
The Titans are not ready to bail
The Titans projected leading passer, rusher, and receiver are the oldest trio in the NFL. While the Ryan Tannehill - Henry core has never broken through in a Super Bowl, the team has the seventh most wins since 2019. The arrival of Hopkins shows they are pushing hard towards capitalizing on this franchise window. Yes, drafting Will Levis indicates an eye on the future, but the team recognizes they were running away with the AFC South before Tannehill’s injury.
The pressure to capitalize on this window fights against concerns that Henry may enter some level of committee with the arrival of Tyjae Spears.
The arrival of Hopkins also shifts defensive attention. Positioning Burks as the clear top receiver put tremendous pressure on him and potentially allowed defenses to play loaded boxes if he could not deliver. At 38%, Henry faced the second most loaded boxes (8+ defenders), trailing only Tyler Allgeier at 40%. Henry’s number has climbed steadily, from 27% in 2020 to 36% in 2021, to 38%. This increase coincided with the departures of Corey Davis following 2020 and then A.J. Brown in 2021. Hopkins and development from Burks are a significant upgrade over 2022’s group.
But with Henry’s age, are fantasy managers correct to fade him?
The Run for History
At 29, Henry is already past the prime age for running backs. Our Jonathan Morris wrote an article last year examining the shelf life of backs and identified age-28 as a critical drop-off point. Henry may have already shown signs of that drop-off, with his 4.4 yards per carry a full yard under his 5.4 ypc in his 2,027-yard season from 2020.
For Henry, age is just a number. Another number is touched. There, Henry may have an out on the typical production window. Through his first three seasons (his age-24 season), Henry had just 501 rushing attempts. For context, in NFL history, 113 players had more rushing attempts through their age-24 seasons. James Robinson just completed his age-24 season and has 514 career attempts!
Because of this delayed start, Henry has a quiet leg up regarding all-time rushing comparisons. Through his age of 28 seasons, he has 1,916 total opportunities. Comparing him to players sitting on the career rushing list shows Henry's physical toll, maybe closer to an age 26 season. Through their age 26 seasons, Curtis Martin (1,953), Ladanian Tomlinson (2,157), and Emmitt Smith (2,285) sat well above Henry's current career opportunities. Those players would add well above 6,000 rushing yards each (Martin - 7,551, Tomlinson - 6,323, and Smith - 9,399).
Henry's career is starting to flirt with major historical milestones. At 8,335 yards, he is 1,665 away from breaking the 1,000-yard threshold. Over his last five seasons, he has averaged 1,420 yards. Three more seasons at that level will see him flirting with breaking into the top ten, where Tony Dorsett's 12,739 provides the barrier to entry.
It is fair to have concerns about Henry's age. But NFL history has shown that production after 29 is possible for top-end backs. In the last 20 seasons, there have been 17 seasons with over 1,200 rushing yards. Some exceptional performances include Tiki Barber rushing for 3,522 total yards in his age 30 and 31 seasons. Historically, we have seen backs like Carlos Hyde, Mark Ingram, and LeGarrette Blount top 1,000 yards after age 28. Adrian Peterson and Frank Gore each recorded 1,000-yard seasons in their age 33 years.
Despite his age, Henry's game is still growing.
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