Will Derrick Henry Prove He's a True Fantasy Football Outlier in 2020?
The 2020 offseason has started with some big news out of the Tennessee Titans' organization as they look to build on a run that took them to the AFC Championship game.
Those three moves certainly will impact the short-term future of the Titans' on-field expectations, but what exactly does that mean for fantasy football -- specifically for Henry, who ranked as the RB2 in half-PPR points per game from Week 7 onward (coinciding with Tannehill's first start)?
Let's Just Get Right to It and Talk About Regression Because That's What This Is Really All About
We can dance around it all day, but the primary factor for Henry is touchdown regression. He'll have opportunity; he'll have volume. But will he continue to dominate in the touchdown column?
Henry feasted down the stretch in 2019 and ended the season with 303 carries, 1,540 rushing yards, and 16 rushing touchdowns -- all league bests. Including his receiving work (18 catches for 206 yards and 2 touchdowns), he scored a touchdown once every 17.8 touches (carries plus receptions) and once every 97.0 yards. Talk about a dominant season.
In fact, there have been 760 instances of a running back seeing at least 150 touches since 2000. Henry's 17.8 touches per score comes in at the 39th-lowest rate in that dataset, meaning he was an outlier in the positive sense.
A few things about that: the average touch per touchdown in this sample is 33.3. Henry scored at basically twice the rate of the average back in this sample. Let that sink in just a little before moving on.
The average yards per touchdown rate in this sample is 158.7. Again, Henry scored once per 97.0 yards accrued. That ranked him 66th among the sample.
Does this automatically mean he'll score less frequently? No. In fact, Henry had very similar touchdown rates from 2018, scoring once every 19.2 touches and once every 96.5 yards. Replicating those numbers is rare (more on that in a second).
Even in 2017, he outperformed the dataset average with marks of 31.2 and 146.7, respectively.
So what? He scores at a high rate? Dude is 6'3" and 247 pounds. He's also very good if you watch the film. I don't really disagree with any of that. That's just not what this is about. At a certain point, outliers get exposed as outliers, and it's better to be ahead of the crowd than behind it.
Among the aforementioned 760 backs with at least 150 touches, 527 followed up with at least 100 touches the next year. So we have a decent sample to dig into.
Remember, Henry scored once every 20 touches or better in each of the past two seasons. Only 52 backs in the overall sample scored at that high of a rate (so 6.8% of them did it). He did it twice -- in a row.
The following year, 14 of 52 (26.9%) actually improved their touch per touchdown rate, but that leaves roughly three-quarters of the elite-scoring sample dropping in efficiency.
Based on this alone, history indicates Henry will drop in per-touch scoring efficiency.
That doesn't tell the full story -- because these guys could just as easily still be dominating to a lesser degree and could handle tons of volume, enough that a lackluster touchdown total won't kill them in terms of fantasy scoring.
That's actually kind of true in the data, as 41 of 52 backs (78.8%) followed up one of these elite scoring seasons by still outperforming the sample average (one touchdown every 31.2 touches) the following year. Henry may step back but still be better than the average high-volume back.
What Exactly Does That Look Like, Though, and Have We Seen It Before?
Okay, so consecutive seasons scoring once every 20 touches are pretty rare -- obviously. Again, we've had only 52 instances of it total since 2000, but those who did it are pretty key fantasy names.
Here is how players followed up consecutive elite scoring seasons, sorted by PPR rank.
|Players With Consecutive TD/Touch|
Marks Better Than 20.0
|Following Season||Touch/TD||PPR RB Rank|
A few notes are required here. All of these guys turned in pretty decent seasons the next year, and some still scored at elite rates. Despite that, just two of them were top-12 running backs in PPR formats. That's pretty important based on what Henry's asking price will be for the 2020 season.
We should certainly note that Marshall Faulk and Alvin Kamara each had more than 80 catches in their seasons. Is now a good time to mention that Henry has 57 career catches over four seasons and a maximum of 18 in a year?
BenJarvus Green-Ellis changed teams from New England to Cincinnati, so we can kind of rule that out; Priest Holmes maxed out at eight games in the following seasons. Shaun Alexander played 10 games in his sample but did drop off significantly in his scoring output.
Anecdotally, the most intriguing player to me is Todd Gurley, who was an offseason discussion point all of 2019 due to his possibly uncertain workload. Gurley actually put up another strong fantasy season despite the Los Angeles Rams falling from 3rd to 16th in numberFire's offensive efficiency metrics. The Titans finished 12th last season by that same measure, for what that's worth.
The main takeaway here is that elite scoring seasons don't necessarily indicate we start slapping frantically at the panic button. Rather, without some high-end receiving, Henry may step back toward RB2 territory in 2020.
Putting It All Together
Henry most likely is going to regress in the negative sense in the touchdown column on a per-touch basis. That's just what history generally indicates for players who score at such a high rate. Of course, if the volume stays high, he can still hit double-digit touchdowns. Even at a more league-average scoring rate, he would have scored roughly 10 times on 321 touches.
Another factor in his favor: Henry played at least 50% of the team's snaps in 14 of 15 games this season; prior to 2019, he had done that in just 7 of 47 games. The team is going to get him plenty of work, and a high-volume running back is never a terrible fantasy asset, especially in season-long formats where weekly floor is important.
The issues are just that the receiving work never really expanded in 2019, and he'll need a third straight outlier season in the touchdown column to be a truly elite fantasy performer.
That's where he's going to be priced, as Henry is currently ranked as FantasyPros' RB6 and the 7th overall player off the board in half-PPR formats. While the weekly floor looks high, history suggests that players who reach such elite touchdown rates step back more toward RB2 territory the following season. Unless Henry is a fantasy deity or sees a significant uptick in receiving, he may be priced at his ceiling.