Derrick Henry’s star went supernova in the 2018 playoffs. Over Weeks 14 and 15, he totaled more than 400 yards and scored six touchdowns. With a solid Week 16 performance, he notched 94 fantasy points in the playoffs, the 13th-best playoff total since the turn of the century, and one of only six 90-plus performances this decade. It comes as no surprise that new offensive coordinator Arthur Smith plans to ride Henry in 2019. But with all of the red flags that still surround Tennessee’s big back, is this enough to remove Henry from the All-Trap Team?
A Tale of Two Seasons – Henry’s 2018
If all you knew about Henry’s 2018 was the fantasy playoff result, you’d certainly assume that Henry finished as an RB1 and posted a strong best ball win rate. That was not the case. He landed at RB16 for the season with a hollow 8.5% win rate. As good as he was during the explosion, he was at least that bad before it.
Henry was not a startable RB through the first 13 weeks. In many leagues he’d been dropped back to waivers, and desperate owners were the main beneficiaries of his 48-point explosion in Week 14. If you had solid options, Henry was on the bench.
You can see the large difference in carries – Henry jumped from 10.7 to 21.8 – but his own struggles made it impossible to use him more often during the first 13 weeks. He averaged 3.7 yards per carry over those 128 attempts. An already mediocre offense simply could not afford to siphon off even more efficiency by dedicating carries to that type of early-down running back.
Is Derrick Henry Good Enough to Fuel An Offense That Can Use Him?
Thinking about Henry’s wild 2018 splits reminded me of a 2016 Fantasy Douche article where he pointed out that Marshawn Lynch was torpedoing Seattle’s average points per drive. The Seahawks were actually better when their lead back wasn’t available. It forced them into more optimal play-calling. He then went on to look at all games from 2000-2015 and discovered that WRs had been four times more valuable than RBs in terms of defense-adjusted drive points added. When it came to their contributions to the points-per-drive calculation, RBs were essentially interchangeable. This also fit with his analysis showing that an RB receiving yard was twice as valuable than a rushing yard in terms of win probability added.
These conclusions are not particularly controversial in 2019 as the importance of early-down passing becomes more accepted. But it is relevant to Henry’s true worth and his likely future usage. Take another quick look at Henry’s table above. Even during that crazy final month where he averaged 26.4 PPG, he is not catching any passes.
In Part 3 of the series, Modern Fantasy RB1s and RB2s Are Nothing Alike, Ryan makes the following points:
- Whereas RB1s have substantially increased their receiving production over the last two years, RB2s are heading the other direction. RB2 PPR (Rec.) percentage has declined for four straight seasons.
- In 2018, fantasy RB2s amassed the highest PPR rushing total and lowest PPR receiving total since 2009. 68.1% of their PPR production came from rushing statistics, which stands in stark contrast to RB1s’ near 50-50 split.
- Fantasy RB1s have actually increased their relative value despite a decline in total production. Fantasy RB2s’ total PPR scoring has dropped 18.3% since 2002, which is nearly twice the rate of decline (9.7%) for RB1s.
- Once again, the point of separation here appears to be receiving acumen: RB2 PPR (Rec.) scoring has dropped 31.5% while RB1 PPR receiving scoring has increased 24.7%.
Ryan’s article is a must-read and includes a variety of charts and graphs to help you understand this phenomenon and see the year-by-year progression. He also breaks down the rush/receive profiles for the 2019 RB2 candidates by ADP and helps you avoid the trap players.
Here’s my takeaway from Ryan’s work in the context of FD’s previous research. This trend directly results from the fact that, from 2000-2015, NFL teams were not getting the necessary value from their stud RBs because they were using them in ways that didn’t add to drive success. Savvy coaches have shifted the way they use their star runners. If you have weapons like Todd Gurley, Saquon Barkley, Alvin Kamara, Christian McCaffrey, and David Johnson, it’s imperative to deploy them in the service of scoring points.
Meanwhile, the upside found from the high-volume, early-down runner is vanishing. NFL teams simply can’t afford the drag on their offenses.
What Does This Mean for Henry in 2019?
It’s no surprise that the RB1 tier by ADP is loaded with runners who sport a balance between rushing and receiving totals. By contrast, the RB2 tier is run-heavy, and that might be even more dangerous than simply having a lower ceiling. In Lesson 1 of the Best Ball Workshop, I pointed out the danger of RBs in the first four rounds last season. In that portion of the draft, RBs had 12 of the worst 16 win rates, including the bottom seven.
Even more frightening, almost all of the danger comes in Rounds 3 and 4 where we find these more run-oriented RBs. In Lesson 7, we discussed the catastrophic win rates when you select an RB during these stanzas.
|2017-2018 Win Rates|
|Round 3||Round 4|
It’s shocking that the numbers have been quite that bad, but it isn’t a surprise that these RBs hold more risk. Beyond their lower ceilings, their access to volume stems not from their own abilities but instead offensive environment, game script, and coaching whim. Any time your usage is largely divorced from your talent, the situation is bleak.1
As it relates to Henry, we can see the conundrum. In order for the Titans to actually present him with a high workload, he needs to consistently break big runs early. These are exactly the types of plays that are hardest to reproduce.
In 2019, the Titans will almost certainly be more stubborn in their Henry usage, but that probably won’t be enough to offset the risk at his ADP. It’s tempting to see the final month as his true level, but we know that, if anything, results from the later in the NFL season are less predictive than those earlier in the year.2
These RB usage trends and the horrific results from third- and fourth-round RBs help explain why I rank the second-tier RBs well below ADP. Are you drafting non-elite RBs too early? Check out our staff rankings.
Image Credit: Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire. Pictured: Derrick Henry.
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