The Titans should be worried about Derrick Henry’s decline
Derrick Henry is toast.
Don’t act like you weren’t already thinking it. Don’t act like you’re surprised to hear it from Football Outsiders, the pioneers of the Curse of 370, either.
Henry is two years removed from a 378-carry, 2,027-yard season for the Tennessee Titans that was magnificent to watch but which voided his factory warranty. Henry appeared to be cruising along without a care about his mileage in the first half of 2021, with five 100-yard rushing afternoons in his first six games, before suffering a foot fracture against the Colts in Week 8. He returned for 20 carries for 62 yards in the playoff loss to the Bengals, which was a far cry from the 195-yard playoff performances of years past that made Henry much more than a fantasy football legend.
An overused power runner coming off a major foot injury? Sure, we’ll take him as a fantasy RB1 (more on that later), if only because there aren’t many better options, but we’ll pass on Henry as the focal point of an offense with Super Bowl aspirations.
Walkthrough is certain that Henry is toast, not because of the injury or a “curse” (and the research behind that curse), but because of a Sports Info Solutions metric called Broken Tackles plus Missed Tackles divided by Attempts. Walkthrough abbreviates that as BMT%, and it’s exactly what the label says it is.
Denver Broncos rookie Javonte Williams led the NFL with a BMT% of 21.7 in 2021. Buffalo Bills running back Devin Singletary was a surprising second at 21.3%. Most of the running backs who matter hovered in the 15.0% range: Aaron Jones (17.5%), Alvan Kamara (16.3%), Jonathan Taylor (16.3%), Nick Chubb (15.4%.)
So where’s Henry? Well, here are the NFL’s worst broken/missed tackle rates for 2021 among backs with over 150 carries:
|Lowest BMT%, 2021|
Elliott is the albatross Jerry Jones chained around the Cowboys’ neck. (Tony Pollard’s BMT% was a not-so-hot 10.8%, if you are curious.) Patterson was a fun story for a not-so-fun team, but he was no more than an adequate rusher. Williams is a veteran RB2 known more for funny quips and locker-room leadership than truck-stick highlights. Hubbard was a bland rookie pressed into service for a bad team. Gaskin is a committee back who played behind one of the league’s worst lines in 2021; he rarely had room to run and did nothing with what he had. Barkley is the muscle car the Giants wrecked the moment they drove him off the lot.
We see better running backs at the bottom (top, really) of the list above, but we also see BMT rates climbing well into the double digits. It’s worth noting here that BMT% is a rushing stat, so Ekeler, Patterson and others don’t get any credit for juking defenders after receptions. (A scan of the receiving BMT rates for running backs revealed nothing noteworthy about the backs that we’re discussing.)
It’s not an encouraging sign to see Henry on the same list as guys like Elliott and Barkley, plus a bunch of committee backs and randos. Perhaps we are looking at some sort of statistical anomaly. Henry is more likely to break a tackle than make a defender miss, so maybe there’s some counting aberration at work. Perhaps Henry always posts low BMT rates, and it’s no big deal.
Nope. Here are Henry’s career broken/missed tackle percentages:
|Derrick Henry, Career BMT%|
Oh dear. It looks like BMT rates might get dragged downward by central tendency when a back’s workload gets extremely high. That makes sense for someone like Henry, who gets a lot of carries near the goal line (not many opportunities to make defenders miss) and in the fourth quarters of victories (keeping both hands on the ball is a higher priority than breaking a long gain). High usage may explain Henry’s drop in 2020, but he posted the worst rate by far of his career in 2021. Plus, his rates are in a four-year decline. Furthermore his foot injury had little or nothing to do with his 2021 plummet because he only carried a handful of times after getting hurt in the Colts game, and his playoff performance is not counted in the figures above.
To provide a raw-number sense of what these BMT rates mean: Henry broke or eluded 29 tackles in 182 carries in his first eight games of 2020 and 34 tackles on 151 carries in his first eight games of 2019. Last year, he broke or eluded just 21 tackles on 219 attempts before getting hurt at the end of his eighth game. So we’re talking about 8-13 lost trucks and jukes in a half-season, or about one to 1.5 per game, perhaps more when an increase in carries is factored in. One or two fewer highlights per game is the difference between an Offensive Player of the Year candidate and a high-volume plodder.
Just to make sure we weren’t chasing down some high-volatility statistic that has little to do with future performance, we combed the Sports Info Solutions data searching for rushers from 2015 to 2021 with 200-plus attempts in a season but a BMT% in Henry’s 2021 neighborhood. Here is who we found:
|Lowest BMT%, 200+ Carries, 2015-2021|
We typically add columns to charts like the one above itemizing what happened to each player the next season, but c’mon, just look at that list: It’s all rushers on their last legs as featured backs or one-year semi-wonders. It’s a frightening list for Henry (and Zeke; Ekeler can safely melt back into a committee role) to be on.
So what will Henry’s first season with a blown piston rod look like? Todd Gurley’s 2019 season (857 yards, 12 touchdowns) or Zeke last year (1,002 yards, 10 touchdowns) probably represent the low end of the projection. Henry is going to get force-fed 20-plus carries per game, after all, because the Titans suddenly have little else on offense.
Walkthrough snuck a peak at the early KUBIAK projections, and they’re very encouraging for fantasy gamers, in part because we project well over 300 carries for Henry. But there’s a difference between a running back who can rack up a dozen touchdowns for your fantasy team and one who can reliably produce chunk yardage against stacked boxes for a team that was forced to trade away its top wide receiver on draft day.
The biggest yellow flag for Henry and the Titans may not be a broken tackle percentage or the Curse of 370, but a receiver corps now spearheaded by rookie Treylon Burks and veteran Robert Woods, a 30-year-old who is new to the team/system and coming off an ACL tear. We rightfully roast the Cowboys for overpaying Zeke and losing Amari Cooper as a result, but Henry is costing the Titans $15 million in cap space this year, money that could have been used to keep A.J. Brown. The Titans may now have caught themselves in a finger trap: Henry’s salary contributed to the loss of Brown, whose absence will make things harder for Henry, whose past mileage may prevent him from breaking the tackles he used to break to keep the Titans offense humming.
The Titans did draft an insurance policy of sorts for Henry: fourth-round pick Hassan Haskins, who was a 270-1,327-20 workhorse for Michigan. Unfortunately, Haskins’ BMT% of 13.0% ranked 29th among rushers with 200-plus carries in 2021 and was well below the rates posted by top prospects Kenneth Walker (29.9%) and Breece Hall (28.5%.)
So yes, Derrick Henry is toast, though it may take another year or two for him to crumble into crumbs, and there’s a troubling chance that the Titans may slowly crumble along with him.
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