In the 2019 regular season, Derrick Henry led all running backs in fantasy points over expectation (FPOE) with 82.5. It was the 15th-highest FPOE mark among all RBs since 2000. In 2018, he was 11th among RBs with 37.4. In fact, he’s never had a season with negative FPOE.
He carried the underdog Titans past the Patriots and Ravens, rushing for 377 yards on 64 attempts (5.9 YPC) in the playoffs. No wonder he racked up 53.75 PPR in those two games and 8.4 more FPOE to add to his already large season tally.
On a per-game basis, he was the RB3 in PPR formats in 2019 at 20.0 PPR/G, only bested by Christian McCaffrey’s insane 29.5 average, and Dalvin Cook’s 21.2 (in one fewer game).
Derrick Henry is awesome — one of the best pure runners in recent memory. And he’s about to get paid this offseason. He’s also a horrible pick at his current ADP. Let me tell you why.
Putting Henry’s 2019 Season In Historical Context
We have already peeked at Henry’s exploits this past season in this article’s introduction, but his numbers were so incredible that they merit some deeper analysis. Just as a quick overview, here are some of Henry’s actual fantasy numbers put in historical context:
- 89th-best season in PPR per game (20.0) since 2000 among all rushers (3,253 RBs)
- 86th-best season in total PPR (300) since 2000 among all rushers
- 22th-best season in total PPR (300) since 2000 among running backs with 15 games played at most (2,784 RBs)
Those are all great numbers inside the 97th percentile in the first two cases and the 99th in the last one. More incredible, though, are the efficiency levels Henry reached in 2019:
- 25th-best season in FPOE/G (5.5) since 2000 among all rushers (3,253 RBs)
- 28th-best season in ruFPOE/G (4.5) since 2000 among all rushers
- 15th-best season in total FPOE (82.5) since 2000 among running backs with 10+ games played (1,646 RBs)
- 15th-best season in total ruFPOE (67.5) since 2000 among running backs with 10+ games played (1,646 RBs)
Again, all those numbers put Henry in the 99th percentile of running backs to log numbers during the past 20 seasons. To say Henry has had a season for the ages would be falling short. But how repeatable is this season and what are the chances Henry has another season as productive as the one he just closed?
Year-to-Year Data Calls For Caution
Using the same dataset going back to the 2000 season, I have found some players with a similar season to that Henry has had in 2019 to analyze how they did in the seasons immediately next to those. I have limited my resulting RBs to those meeting all the following criteria:
- At least 14 games played
- At least 265 total PPR on the season
- At least 50 total FPOE on the season
After running that query I found 39 player-season pairs, excluding five from 2019 as we don’t have Year N+1 data for those. The charts below depict how those players evolved from one season to the next in various metrics. The color scale represents the delta between the Year N and the Year N+1 values, with red meaning a decrease and green an increase from Year N to Year N+1.
As you can see above, it’s rare — but not unheard of — to have a repeat performance in terms of health. Most players who meet the criteria above are not able to play in as many games in Year N+1.
When it comes down to drafting studs with Round 1 or Round 2 ADPs, one of the main strategies is to avoid risks and go for the surefire performers. Overpaying for a player might just mean drafting him inside the top five to see him miss just a couple of games during the season and kill your team aspirations because of that.
The good news for Henry is of the players who appeared 14 or 15 games in Year N, all but one (Ezekiel Elliott — who missed games due to suspension) appeared in at least 14 games in their next season.
Things look worse when looking at the PPR evolution from Year N to Year N+1. Of the 39 players, only eight of them (20.5%) could improve over what they had already done in Year N. And three of those positive deltas either were barely noticeable (between 3.7 and 6.6 more PPR points over the full season) or came in two more games (Priest Holmes played 14 games in 2002 and 16 in 2003, and even with that he could only best his Year-N mark by 4.3 PPR points).
Henry’s most comparable players here (those with PPR tallies between 280 and 320) saw their PPR points fall by an average of 95 points in Year N+1. Of course, some of those players missed much of the season, skewing the results. On a per-game basis, though, the outcome is still negative, with a drop of 1.3 PPR points per game on average.
Finally, when we turn to efficiency, it is nothing but ugly. Only three (7.6%) of the 39 players improved their (already insane) efficiency numbers from one season to the next among those who make the cut.
Again, on a per-game basis, the numbers improve, but only slightly, with one additional player getting into the club of efficiency-beaters, making it four out of 39. The greatest improvement in FPOE from one season to the next was a massive 6.1 FPOE/G (Priest Holmes again, this time from 2001 to 2002), but other than that, the average improvement was just 0.7 FPOE/G, which would only amount to 11.2 extra PPR over a full 16-game season. And remember, that’s only a four-player sample. Everyone else in the cohort saw their FPOE decrease in Year N+1. Henry will have a tough time besting his 2019 mark.
Tennessee’s Unexpected Offense
I can’t close this article without mentioning the environment Henry plays in. If you remember, the Titans changed quarterbacks midseason, benching Marcus Mariota and putting Ryan Tannehill at the helm. Tannehill, as everyone could have expected, went on rampage-mode and had his best season ever:
In 12 games (11 of them as a starter) this past season, Tannehill played better than ever averaging almost 4.5 PPR more points per game than earlier in his career while attempting almost 10 fewer passes per game! No matter where you look, his per-game numbers were improvements all across the board as he just changed the way things worked in Tennessee … and with it Henry’s production:
Looking Forward To 2020
Henry’s incredible 2019 numbers make him a more than appealing player entering 2020 draft (pre)season, but there are a lot of red flags. It might be a little early to tell where things will be in a few months once free agency and the draft are already in the rearview and fantasy owners have given some paused and cold thoughts to what just happened this season.
Even with that, we can assume both Tannehill and Henry will remain in Tennessee extending their contracts for 2020 and beyond.
Looking at Henry’s price in early best-ball leagues should give us a sense of just how much we’ll have to pay to get him on our rosters:
Henry’s current ADP sits at 8.6 as the sixth RB off the board. He hasn’t yet been picked later than the 13th selection and has gone as high as No. 2 overall.
The average top-six ADP RBs from 2000 to 2019 finished those seasons ranked RB19 on average. Of the 120 top-six ADP RBs in that span, only 47 (39%) finished as RB6 or better. Over his career, Henry has an average finish of RB25. The 2019 season marked the first time in his career he outperformed his ADP (from 42.3 ADP to overall top-11 player in PPR) and he had to put up an all-time great season in a completely unexpected environment.
Derrick Henry’s 2019 season was amazing, but don’t expect a repeat performance.