Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry is one of the most fun and downright dangerous running backs in the NFL. After splitting carries for the majority of his first three seasons in the league, the former second-round pick finally earned a complete workload in 2019. He set the fantasy football world on fire, but can he do it again?
2020 Fantasy Football Preview: Derrick Henry
After a strong finish to 2018, many wondered whether Derrick Henry could carry his success over into the 2019 season. That answer was a resounding ‘yes’, as he finished the year as the RB5 in PPR scoring formats. Overall, Henry led the league in carries (303), rushing yards (1,540) and rushing touchdowns (16) while averaging 5.1 yards-per-carry. While he wasn’t a difference-maker as a receiver, he still managed to haul in an additional 18 receptions for 206 yards and two touchdowns.
Henry had a fantastic season, but it wasn’t always the smoothest ride. Henry is not a three-down back a la Christian McCaffrey, and is highly dependent on a run-heavy attack to carry fantasy relevance. As far as fantasy football is concerned, this type of player only carries elite value in a high-scoring offense.
During the first six games of the season, Henry had to make do with Marcus Mariota under center. Tennessee’s offense struggled to move the ball during this stretch, and Henry started the season as the RB19 on a per-game basis. This is obviously not what you’d hope to see from Henry, and this also includes a fluke 75-yard touchdown reception in Week 1. If you take away that one play, he would’ve been the RB25 over the first six weeks.
Of course, everything changed once Ryan Tannehill took over. From Week 7 onward, Henry was the RB2 overall, behind only the great Christian McCaffrey. During this stretch, Henry averaged an absurd 5.92 yards-per-carry and received over 21 carries per game. Tannehill’s fantastic play allowed Henry more scoring opportunities and made it easier to run the ball when opposing teams actually had to respect the passing attack.
Who Made Who Great?
Ryan Tannehill and Derrick Henry both played like the best at their respective positions down the stretch. The question now becomes who made who great, and can this success be sustained heading into 2020?
Tannehill and Henry’s relationship was symbiotic, but Henry relied on Tannehill more than Tannehill relied on Henry. Theoretically, if Henry was good enough to make someone like Tannehill play like a top-five quarterback, then he should’ve also been good enough to keep Marcus Mariota from getting benched. We saw what Henry looked like with a below-average quarterback early in the season, and it wasn’t anything to write home about. Additionally, we know that the run game’s effect on the passing game can be massively overblown. Whether it’s advanced metrics or just watching the film, it’s clear to see that Tannehill genuinely had an amazing season, and wasn’t simply a product of Derrick Henry.
Derrick Henry is a great running back, but, like so many other running backs, he’s only as good as his surroundings. Most running backs need some form of pass-catching upside for a top-five finish, but Henry proved he can do it if Tannehill plays at a high level.
Can Ryan Tannehill Do It Again?
Unfortunately for Henry, it’s hard to imagine Tannehill recapturing his amazing form moving forward. The former Miami Dolphin was legitimately amazing last year, ranking near the top in just about every advanced statistic. However, we’re only dealing with a nine-game sample here, and weird things happen in small samples.
Tannehill was Miami’s starter for the better part of the decade and never came close to playing like he did with the Titans. If you want to play devil’s advocate, you can point to Miami’s overall poor supporting cast as a reason for Tannehill’s less-than-stellar play with the Dolphins. Adam Gase and Joe Philbin are objectively bad coaches, and it would be hard for anyone to succeed under their tutelage. However, subpar coaching can’t explain all of Tannehill’s shortcomings in Miami. Even if the Titans can do a better job of supporting him, regression will come for Tannehill.
This, of course, is bad news for Derrick Henry. Without an elite quarterback creating scoring opportunities, Henry won’t be nearly as productive on the ground. Tannehill won’t be as bad as Mariota was in 2019, but even a dropoff to league-average play will have a sizable impact on Henry.
Derrick Henry Average Draft Position
As of this posting, FantasyPros has Derrick Henry going off the board with the seventh overall pick. This makes him the sixth running back off the board and puts him in the same tier as guys like Alvin Kamara, Dalvin Cook, and Joe Mixon.
Quite frankly, this is too early for Henry. So much of Henry’s production was due to Tannehill playing out of his mind, and the odds of that happening for a second consecutive season are slim to none. With minimal pass-catching upside, Henry is still a gamescript-dependent player and is going to rely on a heavy workload with a healthy dosage of red zone touches. This formula only produces elite results in rare instances, and using a first-round pick on Henry is simply too risky.
Henry will receive a large workload, and Tennessee’s offense should be solid. He’s a safe bet to finish as a low-end RB1 or a high-end RB2. Unfortunately, that’s not where he’s going right now. If his ADP falls to the mid-second in the coming weeks, take a shot on him. However, if he stays where he is, you’re better off looking somewhere else in the first round.
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