For the first time in his career, Derrick Henry led the NFL in both rushing attempts and rushing yards in 2019. With 1,540 yards on the ground, Henry accounted for 24.9% of the Titans’ total offensive output. However, after also taking on a league leading 303 carries, the concern this season is whether or not he can sustain this level of production.
In order to answer this question, I took a look at the NFL’s leading rushers in both attempts and yards for the past ten seasons to see if I could find any trends and correlations in the data.
First, I compared the rushing attempts leader in each year to their attempts in their next season (for Le’Veon Bell, that meant skipping 2018). On average, the rushing attempts leader received 336.6 carries in their league-leading year and then only 215.4 attempts the following year. That comes out to an average of about 121.2 less carries the following year, which is a -35.2% difference. Also, if we look closely at the data, only one player, Ezekiel Elliot, has led the league in rushing attempts in multiple seasons over the last 10 years.
If we compare this to Derrick Henry, he would have had the least amount of rushing attempts for a league leader in the past 10 years with only 303 carries, which is also far below the average of 336.6 carries.
Looking at rushing yards next, we see the average for output for the leading year was 1,665.4 yards and just 952.4 yards for the season after. That is a 712.9-yard decrease and -42.8% difference on average. For this list, only two players were the rushing leaders more than once, Ezekiel Elliot and Adrian Peterson. However, even they were not able to do it in consecutive years. No running back in the last ten years has been able to lead the league in rushing yards or attempts in consecutive years. Also, for both rushing attempts and yards, no player saw an increase the following year; all players saw some sort of regression.
Keep in mind that there are a bevy of different variables that can cause these regressions. Leveon Bell did not play until 2019 after his leading 2017 year and he also played for a completely new team. Demarco Murray was on a new team and situation the following year, as well. Ezekiel Elliot was suspended for six games in 2017 after his league-leading season in 2016. Kareem Hunt was released by the Chiefs during the middle of the season in 2018.
Injuries were also a huge factor. For the rushing yards leaders, four out of the ten players missed games due to injury in the following season. For the rushing attempts leaders, three out of the ten players missed games due to injury in the following season. The most severe case for injuries was Adrian Peterson after his 2015 season. Peterson played only three games and rushed for 72 yards on 37 attempts in 2016 after leading the league in both rushing yards and attempts.
Projecting Derrick Henry’s 2020
If we use these statistics to project Derrick Henry’s 2020 output, it does not look pretty. Using this data, Derrick Henry would be projected to rush for 881 yards on 196 attempts. However, remember the number one rule for statistics: correlation does not equal causation. These trends from previous rushing leaders give us one facet of the equation to project Derrick Henry’s future production. However, there are just too many variables to account for to make this a viable way of projecting rushing yards and attempts.
If we try to look at the causation for the previous regressions, they are mostly associated with injuries, suspensions or playing for a new team/situation. Thankfully, Derrick Henry has not had issues with any of the three. Derrick Henry has never had issues with any significant injuries, has never been suspended, and the Titans will be returning 10 of their 11 starters on offense. While these statistics make Henry’s 2020 season look bleak, the context of his situation gives no indication that he can’t continue to produce at a high level.