The Titans seem intent on getting their money’s worth from running back Derrick Henry, who signed a four-year, $50 million contract (with an additional $1 million in incentives) last year. The volume has been turned up on Henry’s already heavy workload. In 2020, Henry became the NFL’s eighth player to rush for at least 2,000 yards in a season, rumbling for 2,027 on 378 carries — tied for 19th-most for a season.
The 2020 NFL Offensive Player of the Year easily leads the league with 142 carries and 640 rushing yards through five games this season. Saints running back Alvin Kamara, who is second in the NFL, has 48 fewer carries. Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt form arguably the league’s best rushing tandem with the Browns. They have just three more carries combined at 145 than Henry does this season.
Only O.J Simpson has more rushing attempts through the first five games of a season. Simpson had 152 carries with the Bills in 1975. Nobody has ever had more touches (combined rushing attempts and receptions) than Henry’s 156 in the first five games.
Thanks to the addition of a 17th regular-season game, Henry is on track to obliterate the NFL single-season record for rushing attempts that Larry Johnson set with the Chiefs in 2006 when he had 416 carries. Henry’s current pace projects to an eye-popping 483 rushing attempts. At 28.4 carries each contest, Johnson’s record would fall in the 15th game of the season.
In the process, Henry would break Eric Dickerson’s record of 2,105 rushing yards in a season, which he set in 1984 with the Rams and Chris Johnson’s season mark of 2,509 yards from scrimmage (combined rushing and receiving yards) established in 2009 while playing for the Titans. Henry is on pace for 2,176 rushing yards and 2,601 yards from scrimmage. His 530 touches would also be 42 more than James Wilder’s record of 492, which came with the Buccaneers in 1984.
Henry sustaining his massive workload seems unfathomable considering his 2020 usage, the extra game and the NFL increasingly becoming pass happy over the last 10 years. Titans head coach Mike Vrabel addressed Henry’s extreme usage on Monday. “We just have to try to be as smart as we can with recovery and how it is going in the game and how he feels,” said Vrabel. “Then there’s a fine line there in knowing what he needs and the impact he has throughout the course of the game.”
Craving even more NFL coverage focusing on previews, recaps, news and analysis? Listen below and follow the Pick Six podcast for a daily dose of everything you need to follow pro football.
Ideally, Henry’s usage rate will mirror what happened with Simpson in 1975. He went from 30.4 carries per game over the first five contests to averaging 19.7 for the remaining nine games in the season.
That wasn’t the case for the two-time defending rushing champion in 2019 and 2020.
Henry’s workload peaked during the last quarter of the season. In the first three-quarters of these two years, Henry averaged 21 carries per game. The average jumped to 25.4 rushing attempts in the final four games of the two seasons.
Best thing for Henry would be the Titans, who are the lone team in the AFC South with a winning record at 3-2, clinching the division early. The Colts, who are 1-4, are the only team to pose a realistic threat to the Titans repeating as AFC South champions.
If those two seasons are any indication, Henry getting to 400 carries seems inevitable provided he remains healthy. Henry has been extremely durable when winning his rushing titles. His only missed game was in Week 16 of the 2019 season with a hamstring injury.
Henry will join rare company with a 400-carry season. It’s only been done five times in NFL history. The chart below summarizes the careers of the players before and after hitting the 400-carry mark.
Henry is in the same age range as the other running backs when they had the biggest workload of their careers. He is at the higher end of career mileage when the season happened.
None of these guys are small running backs. At 247 pounds, Henry is the heaviest of the bunch. His size may make him better equipped to handle the wear and tear accumulated playing running back.
The best-case scenario for the Titans, since Henry is under contract through the 2023 season with $12 million and $12.5 million salaries in 2022 and 2023, would be for him to be an outlier like Eric Dickerson. Dickerson was second in the NFL in rushing during a strike-shortened 1987 season. He won his last rushing title in 1988, the second year after his heaviest workload. Dickerson’s final 1,000-yard season was the following year in 1989.
Henry quickly declining in the future if his historical usage continues for the rest of this season wouldn’t be surprising since running backs have a shorter shelf life than other positions.
He’ll likely have to prove to be superhuman to get a contract of any consequence after his current deal expires.
It’s still early but Henry is averaging almost a yard less per rushing attempt this season at 4.5 than last year when his 5.4 average was fourth in the NFL among running backs. As the rushing champion in 2019 and 2020, Henry was third among running backs with 5.2 yards per carry (minimum 200 rushing attempts) during this span.
Henry facing stacked defensive fronts more often this season could be a contributing factor. According to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, 41.55 percent of Henry’s carries are with eight or more defenders in the box. It was 27.78 percent last season and 35.64 percent in 2019.
However, Henry’s isn’t faring as well in some advanced running back metrics this season as before. For example, Henry is averaging a rather pedestrian (by his previous standards) 0.15 rush yards over expected per attempt, according to Next Gen Stats. He led the NFL in 2019 with 1.06 rushing yards over expected per attempt and improved last year to 1.11 yards while ranking fifth.
Nonetheless, Henry is on track to the defy the odds by becoming the first player who had a 2,000-yard rushing season to hit the 1,500-yard mark in the following year. Barry Sanders has the most with 1,491 rushing yards in 1998 before he abruptly retired after the season at 30. Whether Henry is the ultimate anomaly at running back remains to be seen.