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What Will Derrick Henry’s Monster 2019 Run Mean for His Fantasy Outlook?

The Titans running back showed just how valuable he can be over the back half of the season and the playoffs. Now the question is whether he can continue that production in 2020.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Much like he did this season, Titans running back Derrick Henry ended 2018 on a tear. The massive, bruising back put up 492 rushing yards and seven touchdowns between Weeks 14 and 16, making him the MVP of the Titans—and that year’s fantasy football playoffs.

Yet coming into 2019, Henry was considered a fade candidate, with experts noting his inconsistency, one-dimensional game, and lack of upside as reasons to be hesitant of drafting the Titans star back too early. Even here at The Ringer, we viewed Henry as a third- or fourth-round selection—maybe worth a flyer as an RB2, but definitely not an RB1.

Well, this season Henry did it again. Except this time, his historic run didn’t just last through the fantasy postseason, but into the real playoffs as well. In three postseason games, Henry racked up 467 scrimmage yards to go with two rushing touchdowns. Oh, and he also threw a touchdown, too, just to put a cherry on top of the entire thing. That performance wasn’t enough to lift the Titans over the Chiefs in the AFC championship game, but it was enough to boost his fantasy stock well into RB1 territory heading into 2020. While there are still many months until this year’s fantasy drafts will start up, it’s already time to ask the question: Should Henry’s historic run shoot him up to the top of fantasy draft boards in 2020?

Let’s start by putting Henry’s performance in context. In terms of fantasy points, Henry’s postseason clocks in as the 10th-highest scoring playoff run by a running back since 1990 (the year the NFL expanded the playoff field to 12 teams). A couple of the players above Henry on that list had the luxury of playing in four postseason games, and others are superstars who were perennial fantasy standouts:

Top Running Back Playoff Runs Since 1990

Rk Player Age Year Team G Fantasy Points PPR Points Carries Rush Yds Rush TD Rec Rec Yds Rec TDs
Rk Player Age Year Team G Fantasy Points PPR Points Carries Rush Yds Rush TD Rec Rec Yds Rec TDs
1 Terrell Davis 25 1997 DEN 4 105.9 113.9 112 581 8 8 38 0
2 Thurman Thomas 24 1990 BUF 3 75.4 88.4 72 390 4 13 154 0
3 Emmitt Smith 26 1995 DAL 3 71.8 77.8 74 298 6 6 60 0
4 Terrell Davis 26 1998 DEN 3 71.7 75.7 78 468 3 4 69 0
5 Sony Michel 23 2018 NE 3 70.5 71.5 71 336 6 1 9 0
6 Thurman Thomas 27 1993 BUF 3 66.9 81.9 63 267 5 15 122 0
7 Eddie George 26 1999 TEN 4 66.1 76.1 108 449 3 10 72 0
8 Emmitt Smith 24 1993 DAL 3 64.8 77.8 66 280 3 13 138 1
9 Emmitt Smith 23 1992 DAL 3 64.2 77.2 71 336 3 13 86 1
10 Derrick Henry 26 2019 TEN 3 62.8 67.8 83 446 2 5 21 0
11 Curtis Martin 23 1996 NE 3 62.2 70.2 49 267 5 8 55 0
12 Marshall Faulk 28 2001 STL 3 61.1 75.1 64 317 3 14 114 0
13 Frank Gore 29 2012 SF 3 60.7 62.7 63 319 4 2 48 0
14 Jamal Lewis 21 2000 BAL 4 59.8 64.8 103 338 4 5 40 0
15 Ricky Watters 24 1993 SF 2 59.4 71.4 36 155 6 12 79 0
16 Thomas Jones 28 2006 CHI 3 56.5 62.5 55 301 4 6 24 0
17 Joseph Addai 23 2006 IND 4 53.2 75.2 76 294 2 22 118 0
18 Marshawn Lynch 27 2013 SEA 3 53.1 54.1 65 288 4 1 3 0
19 Dorsey Levens 27 1997 GB 3 52.8 66.8 71 316 2 14 112 0
20 Leonard Fournette 22 2017 JAX 3 52.6 59.6 70 242 4 7 44 0

Historically, players who notch incredible postseason runs do pretty well the following season as well. Following his record-setting 1997 postseason, Terrell Davis put in one of the greatest fantasy seasons ever in 1998 (and then tore his ACL in 1999). Thurman Thomas was the no. 2 running back in fantasy a year after his 1991 playoff run. Eddie George was a top-three running back in 2000. And Emmitt Smith is Emmitt Smith. The only outlier on this list is Sony Michel, who after a 336-yard, six-touchdown performance in last season’s playoffs was a fantasy afterthought in 2019. (The lesson, as always, is: never draft Patriots running backs.)

You’d expect there to be more noise when dealing with the small sample size of the playoffs, and more perplexing names on this list as a result. But this group indicates that to have a great playoff run, a player needs to be pretty damn great himself.

And of course, Henry’s rising draft stock isn’t just about what he did when the calendar turned to January. He was already surging in the final few months of the 2019 season. In the Titans’ final eight regular-season games, he racked up 959 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns to go with 78 receiving yards and a score. He scored nearly 21 more standard fantasy points than Christian McCaffrey … and that’s despite the fact that Henry sat out a Week 16 tilt against the Saints, meaning he played one fewer game than just about everyone else on the leaderboard. (Though McCaffrey, as you can imagine, easily beats Henry in PPR scoring.)

While full-season numbers are usually more predictive than partial splits, Henry’s second-half performance comes with a reason to believe: It came in games in which Ryan Tannehill started at quarterback. After starting the season 2-4, the Titans benched Marcus Mariota and switched to Tannehill in Week 7, and the team—especially Henry—took off. Tennessee went 7-3 down the stretch, and Henry recorded six games of 20 or more fantasy points compared to just one such game with Mariota under center. Including the playoffs, Henry eclipsed the 100-yard rushing mark in seven of his final nine games, and in five of those he got past 150.

This sample size is much larger than the one fantasy players had to work with coming out of the 2018 season, and that level of production will likely put Henry in the mix with Saquon Barkley, Ezekiel Elliott, and Dalvin Cook as the next running backs to be selected after Christian McCaffrey comes off draft boards (at least in standard-scoring formats). If the Titans offense looks like it did for the second half of 2019 and the playoffs, Henry will return major dividends for anyone who drafts him.

That said, Henry still has some red flags. The first is his obvious lack of upside in PPR formats. Henry had 18 receptions this season, and that represents his career high. While Henry was still the fourth-highest scoring back in PPR points per game, the lack of pass-catching makes it seem like his 2019 production will be his ceiling. It would be hard for him to get even more rushing work than he did in 2019, as he led the league in carries (303), rushing yards (1,540), and rushing scores (16).

The next cause for concern is that Henry vastly overperformed expectations in 2019. He came in 15th among running backs in ESPN’s opportunity-adjusted fantasy points metric, which attempts to “strip away player talent and efficiency and focus solely on opportunity.” Essentially, it’s how many points a player should have scored given the kind of carries, snaps, targets, and other opportunities they received throughout the season. Henry scored 81 more points than his opportunities suggested he should have, which was the largest overachievement among running backs by far. That could be read two ways: If you’re a Henry believer, it just proves that he does more with his opportunities than anyone else in football. If you’re a little more skeptical, his overachievement indicates a coming regression to the mean in 2020.

Henry is also very dependent on his team’s game script. In wins, he averaged 128.8 rushing yards and 1.3 rushing touchdowns. But in losses he was pitiful, putting up 63.5 rushing yards and 0.67 rushing scores per contest. Because he isn’t much of a receiver, Henry’s fantasy prospects are dependent on whether the Titans are in a position where they can let their big back ice the game away. This was true in the playoffs: Henry was dominant in wins over the Patriots and Ravens, but had a mortal-looking line of 69 rushing yards and one score against the Chiefs, when the Titans were behind for much of the game.

This is why Tannehill is so important for Henry. The Titans passer was wildly efficient once he took over the job, and if the impending free agent re-signs with the team and keeps Tennessee winning in 2020, Henry will likely put up monster stat lines. But if Tannehill turns back into a pumpkin and the Titans struggle, Henry’s floor is much lower than those of pass-catching backs. That makes him a much bigger risk than most of the other running backs who go in the first round of fantasy drafts.

Finally, it’s worth noting that Henry will also be a free agent this offseason. I’m assuming he’ll be back with the Titans, either on the franchise tag, the transition tag, or with a new contract. If you are a believer in “contract-year” boosts for players, though, the latter option could be a bit scary. Will Henry have the same motivation to barrel through defenders after he’s gotten his massive payday?

If Henry is back with the Titans next season, he should go quite high in fantasy. In standard-scoring formats, he could be taken no. 2 overall, and in PPR scoring he’ll still be a no-brainer first-round selection. That’s not just because of one magical playoff run though. It’s because of nearly a full season of fantasy dominance—especially once the Titans offense got going under Tannehill. Henry has shown that his success—both in the playoffs and regular season—is no fluke, so there’s no reason to think that drafting him high is a mistake.