Why Derrick Henry is just scratching the surface of his NFL potential

Derrick Henry is one of the most unique specimens in the history of the NFL. Built like an outside linebacker, his one-of-a-kind size and speed combination — along with his endless drive for greatness — has allowed Henry to excel at every level of football.

Standing 6-3 and weighing 247 pounds, Henry became the largest running back in the NFL’s 100+ year history to win the rushing crown last season. Eric Dickerson is the only other running back 6-3 or taller to lead a season in rushing yards, but Dickerson did so at 220 pounds, almost 30 pounds lighter than Henry.

Most of the league’s successful running backs throughout history have had a lower center of gravity, with powerful legs and otherworldly contact-balance to shake off tacklers. Even the biggest backs typically have stronger lower bodies.

Evaluators marveled at Saquan Barkley and A.J. Dillon’s massive quad muscles. Jerome Bettis was built like, well, a bus. William Perry was nicknamed “The Refrigerator” for a reason. Even Brandon Jacobs, as big as he was, had more lower body mass than upper.

Henry isn’t built like that. He has long, powerful sprinter’s legs, but they don’t overshadow the bulk of his upper body. And this is where his greatest asset lies. At six feet, three inches tall, Henry has a nearly six-foot, nine-inch wingspan. The world’s deadliest stiff arm keeps defenders from reaching Henry, whether they go low, high, or anywhere in between.

It has allowed him to be the best running back at every level of football he’s ever played. That’s not an exaggeration; according to the record books, he’s simply the best high school running back to ever play the game. He’s the best running back to ever play at Alabama. And last season, he was the best running back in the NFL.

During his high school career, Henry averaged over 250 yards per contest and never ran for fewer than 100 yards in a game. Here are the national records he set as a running back at Yulee High School in Florida:

  • Single-season rushing attempts (462)
  • Career rushing attempts (1,399)
  • Single-season rushing yards (4,265)
  • Career rushing yards (12,144)
  • Single-season rushing touchdowns (55)
  • Career rushing touchdowns (153)

Those are amongst all high school football players in the United States since they began tracking statistics. It’s not surprising that Henry was unstoppable at the high school level. He was also unstoppable at the college level.

Henry owns the NCAA FBS record for most games in a single season with a rushing score at 15 games. He holds a number of Alabama school records that he set in just three seasons (as opposed to four) while splitting time in the backfield for his first two years. He only carried the ball 207 times total before his third and final season, when he won the National Championship and the Heisman Trophy, recognizing the best player in the nation.

These are the school records he set at Alabama:

  • Career rushing yards (3,591)
  • Single-season rushing yards (2,219)
  • Career rushing touchdowns (42 — tied with Mark Ingram)
  • Single-season rushing touchdowns (28)
  • And he has two of the five best single-game rushing outputs in school history

Henry’s NFL career got off to a slow start. Many people doubted his abilities in the NFL simply because they had never seen any player like him at the running back position. “Top heavy” ballcarriers were supposed to go down easily at the next level. NFL defenders were too big and too fast to get bullied around by a running back.

He slipped to the second round while Ezekiel Elliott was drafted with the fourth overall pick. And it took him time to prove people wrong.

Behind DeMarco Murray his rookie and sophomore seasons, Henry had to patiently wait his turn. His rushing yards by year show the slow and steady progress he made as the coaching staff began to trust him with more and more carries:

YearRush AttemptsRush YardsYards Per CarryRushing TDs
20161104904.55
20171767444.25
20182151,0594.912
20193031,5405.116
Henry’s career rushing stats through his first four years, regular season only

Some attribute Henry’s true breakout to a mid-season conversation with Eddie George during the 2018 year shortly before he exploded on Thursday Night Football against Jacksonville, showcasing that deadly stiff arm en route to a famous 99-yard touchdown run (tied for the longest in NFL history, Henry’s first NFL-record-books moment).

Maybe that conversation gave Henry a minor boost, but really, I think this is who he always was, just waiting for his chance to show it. And here’s why he’s just scratching the surface…

Throughout the offseason, in the midst of Henry’s contract negotiations, we heard a lot of talk from head coach Mike Vrabel and general manager Jon Robinson about the importance of Henry’s leadership to the team’s playoff run. Henry took on a vocal role in practice, lining players up to re-run plays when assignments were missed and honing in on the details so the rushing attack could excel on Sundays.

That’s not something a player can do when they first step into the league. They have to earn the respect of their teammates before demanding accountability from everyone else. Henry’s transformation into a vocal leader paralleled his and the team’s success on the ground last year. As he grew more comfortable in his role, so too did the offense and coordinator Arthur Smith in relying on him to carry the load.

Flashback to the season before last: Henry was not the lead back in 2018 under Matt LaFleur. Dion Lewis out-snapped him on the season by almost 200 plays. But Henry was finally trusted with the rushing load in 2019, and he proved that he could not only lead an offense’s run game, he could carry the entire team. We saw it down the stretch late last season and into the playoffs.

Titans fans know that Henry capped off the 2019 season with a 211-yard, three-touchdown performance to seal his rushing title. It was his first true accolade (outside of a FedEx Ground Player of the Week-type award, or an AFC Offensive Player of the Month) at the NFL level, but it would not be his last.

Over the following two weeks, Henry would stiff-arm his name into the NFL record books with these accomplishments:

  • The only player in NFL history with 180+ rushing yards in three straight games
  • The only player in NFL history with 180+ rushing yards in multiple road playoff games (not in a single season, but in a career. Henry of course did so in back-to-back games).
  • The only player in NFL history with 170+ rushing yards in consecutive postseason games.

All of this was leading to 2020…

Henry’s rushing numbers so far this year represent the most production through five games in a season in his career — in terms of carries, yards, and touchdowns. After leading the league not just in rushing yards but also (along with Aaron Jones) rushing touchdowns last season, Henry is on pace to top his numbers so far in 2020. And why shouldn’t he be?

He finally enters a season confidently comfortable that he is the team’s offensive engine. He was paid handsomely for that role with a new four-year contract and kept up his intense workout regimen over the offseason to be ready to carry such a heavy workload.

YearRush AttemptsRush YardsYards Per CarryRushing TDs
2016341514.40
2017431874.31
2018652193.40
2019983883.94
20201235884.86
Henry’s career rushing stats through the first five games of each season.

Henry’s 123 carries and 588 yards each lead the NFL through 6 weeks despite the Titans only playing 5 games in that span (Joe Mixon is second in rush attempts with 6 games played).

Currently, Henry’s season-long pace would put him at 1,881 rushing yards and 19 rushing touchdowns. That would be an incredible season for the running back that would likely lead the NFL in rushing, but it’s not quite a record-setting pace.

Most people would tell you hot streaks like these are bound to cool off over a 16-game span. But Henry is different. If we calculated his season-long pace based on five games of 2019, or any other year of his career, the numbers would fall well short of where he landed by the end of the season.

Any Titans fan could tell you Henry gets stronger as the season wears on. His best performances have come during the month of December every year of his career. We are still over six weeks away from December right now, but Henry is playing at his “D-Henber” levels already.

Henry’s career rushing stats by month:

YearGamesRush AttemptsRush YardsRush Yards/GameYards Per CarryRushing TDs
Sept.172821,05161.83.76
Oct.1821594352.44.49
Nov.1414585160.85.910
Dec.*182961,57687.65.319
*Includes a Week 17 Jan. 1 matchup with Houston from the 2016 season.

If he does what he’s done every year of his career and continues to improve as the season wears on, Dickerson’s single-season rushing record — 2,105 yards set in 1984 — may be in jeopardy. At the very least, 2,000 yards is in play. That might sound like a stretch, but look at what The King has done over his last 16 games:

374 carries, 2,068 yards (5.5 YPC), 129.25 yards/game, with 19 rushing touchdowns.

To crack 2K, Henry would need to average almost 129 yards per game over the final 11. He essentially needs to keep up the pace he’s maintained since Ryan Tannehill took over as the starting quarterback 16 games ago (including the postseason).

There may be a wall Henry will have to run through at some point, but it doesn’t appear to be coming anytime in the foreseeable future. Remarkably, we are witnessing a player still on the rise as he gallops into the prime of his career.

Henry has already set one new record in 2020, becoming the first player in NFL history with a 200+ yard rushing game in three consecutive seasons. After Sunday’s outing, he’s now responsible for three of the NFL’s six 200-yard rushing performances since the start of 2018.

Henry’s just a record-breaker. He’s done it at every level of football since he was a freshman in high school. Why should the NFL’s records be any different?

Comments

  1. I think one of the biggest reasons that Henry gets stronger as the year goes on is his conditioning compared to the conditioning of NFL defenses. He never seems to slow down physically, but as you get into the back half of a season those backside defenders have a little less spring in their step and the cutback lanes become just a little wider. I agree that we have little reason to believe that he won’t have the same huge finish to this season that he’s had over the last two.

    1. Yes. Not only has he not missed time for injury that I can remember, when is the last time he even was a little slow to get up after a tackle? Even DLs and larger LBs don’t seem to get a solid squared-up hit on him. He seems to always be the one delivering kinetic energy, not absorbing it (see: Josh Norman, Earl Thomas, the entire Jags and Texans defensive rosters).

      1. He was out with a hamstring injury in week 16 last year against the Saints if I remember correctly, though that game had virtually no play off implications. He had been limited with it for a couple of games prior and did not look like he had his top end speed/burst. But, yes, very durable, having missed only 2 games in 4 plus years and closing in on 1,000 carries in his career.

        1. Yep, he had a nagging hamstring injury, and we made the decision to rest him in the meaningless Saints game, which was a brilliant decision in hindsight. There is definitely even more potential there.

          However, also remember last September/October he didn’t have TL for 4 games, and the offense line was settling in once he returned.

          I’m knocking on wood that he can keep his production up without TL

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