- Darrell Henderson has plenty of standalone value, regardless of Todd Gurley's health.
The most polarizing player to come out of the 2019 NFL Draft could easily be the newest addition to the Los Angeles Rams’ running back room. That man would be 5’8”, 208-pound yards-per-carry freak Darrell Henderson. Henderson sports one of the widest ranges in FantasyPros’ consensus rankings and ranks as the RB48 for redraft purposes according to our own John Paulsen’s rankings, 22 spots higher than the consensus. The opinions on the 2019 third-round back vary from immediate high-level contributor to nothing more than a change-of-pace back who is buried behind Todd Gurley and Malcolm Brown on the depth chart.
Before we get too wrapped up in the case for Henderson’s fantasy value in 2019, let us first look back and see exactly how we got to this point.
Henderson was a monster in three years at Memphis, totaling 3,545 rushing yards, 758 receiving yards, and 44 total touchdowns. He was one of the country’s premier breakaway runners, helping him to an absurd 8.9 yards per carry over the 2017-18 seasons. Though his straightaway speed is only decent (4.49-second 40-yard dash at the combine), he relied on more than just speed to find himself in open space and off to the races. Henderson was one of the most balanced runners in the country and consistently fought for extra yards after contact. Outside of simply watching what he did on the field—take this 2018 game against No. 8 UCF, for instance—we have the numbers to back it up.
Pro Football Focus’ numbers, for one, loved him.
And lest you think he’s a smaller running back making all his hay on sweeps and outside runs, he was just as effective gaining yards after initial contact no matter the gap he went through.
If you’ve seen any of Henderson’s college tape before, or if you’ve just come across it from this article, it’s easy to glean that his offensive line was quite good. According to yards created guru Graham Barfield, the Memphis line created 2.54 yards per carry every time Henderson carried the ball—the most Graham has ever charted by more than half a yard. I don’t see why we should punish him for having good blocking, but I do understand that his numbers would be more eye-popping if he did this behind five scrubs against Power Five competition.
Nonetheless, in 2018 Henderson took what was given to him and turned 27 of his runs into 20-plus-yard gains (first in the nation), 25 of his touches into scores (second in the nation), and averaged 15.5 yards per reception (fifth in the nation among backs with at least catches). He earned all 4,303 of the scrimmage yards he piled up in Memphis.
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The NFL Draft and Offseason Chatter
Despite matching the Lions’ offer sheet on restricted free agent Malcolm Brown earlier in the offseason, the Rams still felt compelled to trade up six spots to select Henderson with the 70th overall pick in this year’s draft. That should tell you what the team thinks of him.
I’m not concerned about Brown, an undrafted free agent, taking away meaningful snaps from Gurley or Henderson. The Rams were simply matching a relatively cheap two-year, $3.25 million contract before the draft in case they were not able to snag a running back to their liking. I don’t believe Brown risks being cut. They invested at least something in him and likely appreciate that he knows the offense and scheme. I also don’t believe he will get much more than emergency touches. They would not have been riding C.J. Anderson through the fantasy playoffs if they had confidence in Brown.
On the other hand, I believe Henderson is very much a threat to Todd Gurley’s workload right off the bat, regardless of the starter’s health. But let us acknowledge the elephant in the room. Gurley’s arthritic knee is a huge question mark, and, yes, we should be worried.
Since entering the league in 2015, Gurley's 1,229 touches lead the league. By a lot. Fellow 2015 draftee Melvin Gordon ranks second with 1,079. Just four more players—LeSean McCoy, Frank Gore, Lamar Miller and Ezekiel Elliott—are north of 1,000 touches in that time.
The questions about his knee may not even be entirely based on his workload, either. Pro Football Doc David Chao posits in this article that Gurley’s knee arthritis could be the result of an ACL tear all the way back in 2014. Chao does say that he by no means believes it will end Gurley’s career, but he’s certain that his 250-carry, 300-touch seasons are a thing of the past. Still, according to Sean McVay, the drafting of Henderson had nothing to do with what they already had on the roster.
Les Snead and Sean McVay emphasize that they have wanted a change of pace back and that is why they selected Darrell Henderson. McVay called him a unique playmaker, and when asked, said this pick was about Henderson’s skills and not Todd Gurley’s knee.— Lindsey Thiry (@LindseyThiry) April 27, 2019
No matter if we should believe that entire statement or not, we should dig into exactly what sort of system fit Henderson will be for McVay’s offense. It seems from the Rams’ point of view that he will be a change-of-pace guy in the mold of Alvin Kamara. Now, Kamara caught 81 balls en route to 200-plus touches his rookie season. I wouldn’t be expecting that much volume, but it’s an uplifting thought.
In a recent interview with the Orange County Register, Memphis head coach Mike Norvell was ecstatic about his former running back going to Los Angeles. “I don’t know if there’s a better fit in the NFL for him than the Rams” he said. The article goes on to reference the similarities in the schemes Henderson played in with the Tigers, and will play in with the Rams.
Norvell had already digested hours of the Rams offense over the past year, gleaning what he could. He noted how similarly he and McVay used running backs, deploying them all over the field. Memphis handed off to its backs out of shotgun formation more frequently. But like the Rams, the Memphis offense subsisted on a heavy dose of outside zone runs, which asked backs to run off tackle while patiently reading the defense before cutting upfield.
We don’t have to go off the coach’s words alone. We have hard facts to back it up.
Rams ran outside zone 217 times during 2018 regular season - 52 more than any other team— Mike Renner (@PFF_Mike) May 8, 2019
Darrell Henderson on outside zone last two years:
10.7 YPC (led nation)
7.0 YAC/Attempt (led nation)
23 First downs
16 broken tackles
2019 Outlook and Beyond
I’m a big fan of buying Henderson in dynasty leagues. According to average draft position data from Dynasty League Football, he is going at the 17th overall pick, which I find to be ridiculous. My Fantasy League ADP has him a little higher at 14th overall, but I still think that’s an easy pick to make. In what is thought to be a down year for draft classes, pick the highest upside players that you can. Though it is an admittedly lofty and unlikely ceiling, a Kamara-like outcome for Henderson is at least somewhat feasible. That possibility alone should keep Henderson in the back half of the first round of rookie drafts.
Early projections for this upcoming season are a little bit modest in my eyes but at the moment 4for4’s John Paulsen has him with about 170 touches and 700 yards from scrimmage, finishing at RB48.
With his yards-after-contact ability, a system marriage that even Henderson himself is excited about, and an affordable price tag, I see an ideal target in redraft leagues. According to recent ADP data, Henderson is being selected just outside the top 100, after guys like Ronald Jones and Austin Hooper. Start buying in now before his price becomes too expensive.