Don’t Overlook Derrick Henry’s Receiving Concerns in Fantasy Football
As the Tennessee Titans' offense morphed into a power rushing attack in 2019, Derrick Henry emerged as one of the star running backs in the league. Finishing with over 300 carries, Henry led the league in rushing yards (1,540) and rushing touchdowns (16), which propelled him to a stellar fantasy campaign.
In standard leagues, Henry ranked second among running backs in fantasy points, and because the Titans' offense revolves around him, a similar performance can be expected of him in that format.
Since most fantasy players prefer PPR formats, however, we'll focus this article on Henry's value in those leagues -- where he ranked fifth in 2019.
As one of the few running backs who is the focal point of his team's offense, Henry will be a fairly safe fantasy target this year. However, after posting career numbers and still barely cracking the top five in PPR leagues, Henry also doesn't have an elite ceiling, particularly in PPR.
So how should we value Henry, the RB6 per BestBall10's May ADP? Let's dive into some stats to determine where you should feel comfortable drafting him in 2020.
Touchdown Regression Is Coming
Henry scored 16 rushing touchdowns in 15 games in 2019, a remarkable feat but an unsustainable pace. In the previous 10 seasons, there were eight running backs who averaged at least one rushing touchdown per game (see list below), and the following year their rushing touchdowns per game dropped collectively by 47 percent.
|RB||Year||Team||TD/G||TD/G Next Season||Difference|
[Note: David Johnson played only one game in 2017, so his 2018 statistics are used for his next season]
If Henry's 2020 touchdown production follows the same trend, he would fall from 16 to eight scores. Removing those 48 fantasy points from Henry's 2019 total, assuming everything else stayed the same, would have dropped him from the RB5 to the RB10.
If Henry falls on the lower end of this spectrum, around 25 percent, that still causes him to lose four touchdowns off his total. Based on last year's numbers, that drops him only fifth to seventh, but it creates a significant gap between him and the upper tier of running backs who hovered around 300 total fantasy points.
No Passing Game Value
Henry's near certain decline in touchdown production wouldn't be as much of an issue if he played a role in the Titans' passing game. Fantasy football is dominated by pass-catching running backs, so much so that Austin Ekeler, who started just half of his team's games a year ago, outscored Henry in 2019.
Henry saw just 24 targets in the passing game, making him the first running back with fewer than 25 targets to crack the top five of PPR scoring since Michael Turner finished fourth in 2008.
Dating back to 2010, here's the list of the highest-scoring running backs each season who saw fewer than 25 targets -- only three cracked the top 10.
|2019||Derrick Henry, TEN||5th|
|2018||Chris Carson, SEA||15th|
|2017||Latavius Murray, MIN||24th|
|2016||LeGarrette Blount, NE||9th|
|2015||Jeremy Hill, CIN||19th|
|2014||Frank Gore, SF||21st|
|2013||Alfred Morris, WSH||20th|
|2012||Alfred Morris, WSH||8th|
|2011||Beanie Wells, ARI||23rd|
|2010||Michael Turner, ATL||14th|
Running backs who don't factor into the passing game become heavily reliant on touchdowns -- which, as we already established, can be volatile from year to year. This makes running backs like Henry among the least reliable on a year-to-year basis.
Take Alfred Morris as an example. Despite a similar workload in the 2012 and 2013 seasons, Morris' rank among running backs fell from eight to 20th. The primary reason: a drop from 13 to seven touchdowns.
Henry's 2020 regression may not be as steep as Morris' since the Titans are a better team than the 2013 Washington squad, but it serves as an example of what can happen to the fantasy value of a running back who relies too heavily on rushing touchdowns, even when he remains his team's feature back.
Running Into Stacked Boxes
Since Tennessee's offense is built around Henry, which wasn't true of some of the previous running backs listed above, you may believe he has a chance to be an outlier. However, it's also possible the Titans' predictable offense works against him.
According to Sports Info Solutions, Henry ran into a box stacked with eight or more defenders on 45.3 percent of his rushing attempts last season, the second-highest rate in the league.
That number reflects the Titans' opponents understanding their offense revolves around Henry. They are willing to stack the box in an effort to tempt Tennessee to put more on Ryan Tannehill's shoulders.
Could we see this stacked box rate rise again in 2019? It's hard to predict with certainty because there are many factors at play, but it's possible certain teams will sell out to stop Henry -- especially if Tannehill fails to replicate his career year from a season ago.
How to Value Henry
Any running back who is the unquestioned workhorse in the backfield will have significant fantasy value. Even a pessimistic projection for Henry would probably place him among the top 10 to 12 running backs.
So if you already own Henry in a keeper or dynasty league, you should feel confident you'll get another strong year out of him. In redraft leagues, however, you'll need to think about how high you're willing to gamble on a running back without a top-tier ceiling.
Like we said at the jump, Henry has been the sixth running back off the board over the last month. That's a reasonable range to select him based on our expectations, but it also means you are likely drafting Henry at his ceiling. Henry's career year was good enough to rank just fifth among running backs, so it would be unreasonable to expect him to significantly out-play that No. 6 slot.
If you're faced with the decision to draft Henry in this range, you should fall back on your personal draft philosophy. Do you prefer to play it safe, knowing Henry won't outperform this slot but likely won't be a bust either? Or would you rather select a riskier player, such as Joe Mixon, who has a lower floor but could also finish among the top two or three running backs?
If Henry were to slide in your draft, you could probably feel more comfortable drafting him in the eight to 10 range among running backs, giving you some hope he outperforms his draft slot.