The summer is here, meaning we're getting closer to the start of fantasy football drafts. Success in those drafts will come from landing terrific bargains in the middle to late rounds while avoiding players who could see their numbers decline compared to 2020. However, that latter exercise isn't easy, especially in the case of players who are among the elite at their position or are coming off breakout seasons in the stat sheets.
Case in point: In 2018, James Conner emerged into a fantasy superstar as the new lead running back in Pittsburgh. He finished sixth in fantasy points at the position even though he missed three games. That success, plus his versatile skill set, made him a first-round pick in most 2019 redrafts. Fantasy folks just trusted that because Conner was so good in his breakout year, he’d be just as good or better the following year. Unfortunately, those of you who sunk a first-rounder on him found out differently.
Conner missed six games in 2019, and his average stats per game went downhill. His yards per carry average dropped from 4.5 to 4.0, and his fantasy points per game average went from 21.5 to 14.6. The Pitt product finished a very disappointing RB35.
The point here is that few folks saw this coming because Conner was so good in 2018. That leads me to this series, aptly named “The Fantasy Case Against …” where I’ll do my due diligence in looking at players who everyone in fantasy land seems to think is a sure bet to remain uber-productive after finding a high level of success in past seasons.
Let's talk about Derrick Henry!
Henry is coming off one of the greatest rushing seasons in NFL history. His 2,027 yards on the ground is the fifth-most ever produced 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 at the position in two straight seasons (despite 37 combined catches), and Henry is now a virtual lock to be a top-five overall selection in 2021 fantasy drafts.
Did You Know?
Out of the seven previous running backs to hit the 2,000-yard rushing mark, only two (Barry Sanders – 29, Adrian Peterson – 28) were older than 26 years old. O.J. Simpson, Terrell Davis, and Henry all hit the mark at age 26, while Eric Dickerson, Jamal Lewis, and Chris Johnson were 24. Now, let’s take a 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, Peterson) have reached the 333.1 fantasy point total that Henry scored in 2020. Just eight running backs at that age have finished with 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.
Henry’s 2,000-yard season was the eighth-such campaign in the National Football League. The first back on this list is Simpson, who rushed for 2,003 yards in 14 games. His 285.2 fantasy points that season (14 games) were also the most among backs. He posted 878 fewer rushing yards, 114.8 fewer points, and a 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 Dickerson, who made the mark in 1984. His 2,105 yards remain 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 a RB19 ranking during his follow-up 1985 season.
Notice a trend?
The next two backs to reach 2,000 yards on the ground were Sanders (1997) and Davis (1998). Both backs finished their respective campaigns atop the position in points, and both were top-five picks the following season. Unfortunately, neither met expectations. Sanders dropped a total of 562 yards on the ground and scored 114 fewer fantasy points, and Davis played in a total of four contests due to lingering knee injuries.
Lewis was the next running back to accomplish the 2,000-yard feat, posting 2,066 on 387 carries in 2003. He played just 12 games the following year, rushed for 1,060 fewer yards, scored 161 fewer points, and fell from RB4 all the way down to RB28. 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 would score 120 fewer points. Overall, Johnson experienced a decline of 7.5 points per game. That is a significant decrease.
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.
The Titans lost former offensive coordinator Arthur Smith to the Atlanta Falcons and hired Todd Downing in his absence. He had a brief, one-year stint as the OC in Oakland (2017), but his system didn’t result in on-field success. His backfield featured Marshawn Lynch, but “Beast Mode” was past his prime and finished as the RB24. The Raiders also threw the football 61.1 percent of the time, which isn't going to happen with Henry in the mix as the offensive centerpiece.
In fact, the Titans haven’t thrown the ball more than 53.1 percent of the time in three years with Mike Vrabel as the head coach. Could that change with the addition of Julio Jones? It’s possible, but I’d be surprised if the percentage went north of 55 percent.
The data here speaks for itself, folks. There's a good chance Henry will see a decline (and maybe a significant one) in rushing yards and fantasy points this season.
One other trend that might not bode well for Henry is the “Curse of 370,” which suggests a running back with 370 or more touches in a single season will see a statistical decline the following year. Since 2010, there have been 13 such instances (including Henry’s 397 last season). In the previous 12, the player’s stats fell (sometimes significantly) nine times (75 percent). That's notable, folks.
Does this all take Henry out of the first-round conversation? Of course not. But much like the other seven backs in the 2,000-yard club and any player coming off a "magical season," fantasy managers need to temper expectations or prepare for disappointment.
The Fantasy Case Against ...
- RUNNING BACKS
- WIDE RECEIVERS
- TIGHT ENDS
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. Click here to read all his articles here on SI Fantasy. You can follow Michael on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram for your late-breaking fantasy news and the best analysis in the business!