Derrick Henry has emerged into one of the top running backs in the National Football League. Just ask any one of the numerous defenders who've been stiff-armed straight to hell over the last couple of years. Heck, I'd guess Josh Norman would be fine if he never had to attempt to tackle the 6-foot-3, 247-pound bulldozer of a man ever gain.
Henry is also coming off one of the greatest rushing seasons in the history of the NFL. His 2,027 yards on the ground is the fifth-most ever in a single season, and his 333.1 fantasy points ranked him third among backs in 2020. He’s now finished in the top-five in points among runners in two straight seasons (despite just 37 combined catches), and Henry is a virtual lock to be a top-five overall selection in 2021 fantasy drafts.
Should Derrick Henry be a top pick in 2021?
While Henry is coming off a historic campaign that put him on a list of some of the best rushing performances of all time, it also put him in line to meet a seemingly inevitable fate. That fate includes decreased stats and a notable decline in fantasy appeal. Think this is a thoughtless statement versed for the cause of page views and article clicks?
Well, let's look back at what's happened to past superstar backs who've rushed for 2,000 yards.
Henry’s 2,000-yard season was the eighth-such campaign in the NFL. The first back on this list is the now infamous O.J. Simpson, who rushed for 2,003 yards in just 14 games. His 285.2 fantasy points that season (14 games) were also the most among backs. He went on to post 878 fewer rushing yards, 114.8 fewer points, and an RB12 finish in 1974. Simpson’s fantasy points-per-game average also declined from 20.4 down to 12.2.
The next back to hit 2,000 rushing yards was Eric Dickerson, who made the mark in 1984. His 2,105 yards remains the gold standard, and his 327.4 points ranked third among backs. E.D. followed up that year with a less impressive year, posting 871 fewer yards, 99.4 fewer fantasy points, and an RB19 ranking during his follow-up 1985 season.
Notice a trend?
The next two backs to reach 2,000 yards on the ground were Barry Sanders (1997) and Terrell Davis (1998). Both backs finished their respective campaigns atop the position in points, and both were top-five picks the following season. Unfortunately, neither lived up to expectations. Sanders dropped a total of 562 yards on the ground and scored 114 fewer fantasy points the following season, and Davis played a total of four games due to knee issues. T.D. never rushed for more than 701 yards in a single season again.
Jamal Lewis was the next runner to accomplish the 2,000-yard feat, posting 2,066 on 387 carries in 2003. The following year, he played just 12 games, rushed for 1,060 fewer yards, scored 161 fewer points, and fell from the RB4 down to the RB28. Chris Johnson, who earned the nickname CJ2K after putting up 2,006 rushing yards and nearly 393 fantasy points, was the top fantasy back in the land in 2009. He wasn’t what I would call a bust the following season, as C.J. finished seventh in fantasy points among runners. He did, however, rush for 900 fewer yards and score 120 fewer fantasy points compared to 2009. Overall, he experienced a decline of 7.5 points per game.
As Seinfeld would say, “that’s a pretty big matzo ball hanging out there.”
The last runner to reach 2,000 yards on the ground before Henry was Adrian Peterson, who rushed for 2,097 yards less than a year removed from major knee construction. His amazing campaign was good enough for nearly 350 fantasy points and an RB1 finish. A.D.'s heroics weren't enough to avoid a statistical decline, though, as he missed two games the following year and finished with 831 fewer yards and 115 fewer points.
So, all seven backs who had previously rushed for over 2,000 yards experienced no less than a 562-yard decrease in rushing yards, no less than a 578-yard decline in scrimmage yards, and no less than a 99.4-point decrease in fantasy points the following year. The average decline in rushing yards among the backs who played at least 12 games in the year after 2,000 was 807 and the average decline in points is 120.6.
If we take the average rushing yards decline, 807, and remove it from Henry’s totals, he would have rushed for 1,220 yards and seen a decline of 80.7 fantasy points. That also takes his point total from 333.1 down to 252.4, which would have dropped him four spots at the position. If we also factor in the average decline in rushing touchdowns (5), that drops Henry to 12 and moves him down to 222.4 points. That would have put him at RB10, just behind Ezekiel Elliott (223.7), who was considered a bust in 2020.
These declines can’t be attributed to age, either.
Out of the seven previous running backs, only two (Sanders – 29, Peterson – 28) were older than 26. Simpson, Davis, and Henry hit the mark at 26, while Dickerson, Lewis, and Johnson were 24. Now, let's look at how 27-year old running backs have performed from a fantasy football perspective during the last 20 NFL seasons.
Since 2001, only two 27-year old backs (LaDainian Tomlinson, Adrian Peterson) have reached the 333.1 fantasy point total that Henry scored in 2020. At that age, just eight runners put up 300-plus points, and just five others went over the 250-point mark. What’s more, just five backs (Peterson, Tomlinson, Shaun Alexander, Fred Taylor, Edgerrin James) have rushed for more than 1,500 yards in their age-27 season.
The data here speaks for itself. There's a great chance Henry will see a decline (and maybe a significant one) in rushing yards and fantasy points next season. A decline should be expected, a significant one appears likely. Does it take him out of the first-round conversation? Of course not. But much like the other seven backs in the 2,000-yard club and really any player coming off a "magical season," fantasy managers need to temper expectations or prepare for disappointment.
Michael Fabiano is an award-winning fantasy football analyst on Sports Illustrated and a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association (FSWA) Hall of Fame. You can follow Michael on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram for all of the latest breaking fantasy football news and the best analysis in the business!