2022 Titans Backfield Breakdown: King Henry the Ain’t

by Noah Hills · Analytics & Advanced Metrics

The 2022 Titans Backfield Breakdown is part of an offseason series in which I take a deep dive into one NFL team’s backfield and examine the respective rushing performances of the players in it. In doing so, I hope to gain insights into key players from a talent evaluation standpoint, and using that evaluation as a baseline, from a dynasty valuation standpoint. The first installments in the series, on the New England Patriots and Detroit Lions,┬ácan be found here.

I’ll start by taking a quick overview of each team’s raw rushing volume and propensity to run the ball in general, and then dive into the player evaluation portion. Before we start, let’s define the metrics I’ll use as part of those evaluations:

Key Metrics

Yards per Carry+ (or YPC+)

The degree to which a player’s raw yard per carry average exceeds or falls short of the collective yard per carry average of all other running backs on his team. Meant to be an overview of a player’s team-relative efficiency.

Box Count+

The degree to which the average amount of defenders in the box that a player faces on his runs exceeds or falls short of the collective average faced by the other running backs on his team. Considering that the outcome of any given rushing attempt is largely dependent on the amount of defenders in the box pre-snap, Box Count+ describes the relative degree of difficulty of a running back’s carries.

Breakaway Conversion Rate (BCR)

Quantifies performance in the open field by measuring how often a player turns his chunk runs of at least 10 yards into breakaway gains of at least 20 yards.

Box-Adjusted Efficiency Rating (BAE Rating)

Improves upon YPC+ by accounting for the box counts that a player carried the ball against. Looks at team-relative yards per carry against each individual box count, then uses a weighted average (based on total carries against each box count) to generate an overall score. A score of 100-percent indicates that a player is producing exactly the per carry output of his teammates, a score above 100-percent indicates that he is outdoing their per carry output to whatever degree, and vice versa for a score below 100-percent.

Relative Success Rate (RSR)

Measures player consistency using Success Rate, but relative to his teammates and adjusted for the box counts that he faced in the same way that BAE Rating is. “Success” on a given carry is defined by gaining 40-percent of yards needed on first down, 70-percent of yards needed on second down, and 100-percent of yards needed on third or fourth down. A score of 0.0-percent indicates that a player is succeeding on exactly the same percentage of his carries as are the other backs on his team, a positive score indicates that he is succeeding more often than his teammates are, and vice versa for a negative score.

Team Rushing Volume

For the second time in a row last season, the Tennessee Titans were one of the top two teams in the NFL in rushing attempts. The 551 carries they had in 2021 led the league and was almost 100 carries more than the league average 0f 452.9. It should come as no surprise that this run-heavy approach is a trend that goes back almost half a decade, as the Titans have been top-10 in the league in rushing attempts since Derrick Henry took over as the starter at running back in 2018.

The Titans also do not just run because they are a good team that has the opportunity to pound the rock while nursing late leads. According to rbsdm.com, they have been the run-heaviest team in the NFL in early-down, neutral Game Script situations (when win probability for either team does not exceed 80-percent) in both 2020 and 2021. In 2021, they ran the ball more often than would be expected (using league-wide play-by-play data) on nearly every down-and-distance situation, and 8-percent more often than would be expected overall.

Simply, the Titans have one of the most run-happy offenses in the league, regardless of situation. It’s a bit of a chicken-or-the-egg question to ponder whether that philosophy would persist if Henry was not on the team (though their situational rush rate over expectation was still +8-percent in games he didn’t play last year), but he’s under contract for another three years. The Titans should remain one of the highest volume rushing teams in the NFL in 2022.

Efficiency Numbers

Because of Derrick Henry‘s missed games, we have a solid sample of backs who handled a nontrivial amount of carries for the Titans last year. In addition to Henry, D’Onta Foreman had over 100 carries. And Dontrell Hilliard, Jeremy McNichols, and Adrian Peterson each were well into the double digits. Here are the full rushing efficiency profiles for those five runners:

Now what are we looking at here?

None of Hilliard, McNichols, or Peterson should have much value in any kind of fantasy format. But for what it’s worth, Hilliard was excellent last year. He saw lighter box counts than the rest of the guys on the team. Even accounting for those fronts, he was more efficient overall and more consistent than the other Tennessee runners.

McNichols was bad and Peterson is cooked.

Henry and Foreman represent an interesting dichotomy. They had essentially the same per-carry output during their respective turns as the lead back. The differences are that Foreman was better as a big-play runner and produced slightly better yards per carry while seeing heavier box counts. He was also a bit more consistent than Henry was.

So Now What?

More than anything, the above question refers to Derrick Henry‘s career path. Based on PPR points per game, he was still the RB1 in fantasy last year. But the efficiency numbers we just touched on don’t look like they belong to an elite real life running back. Let’s see how they compare to Henry’s numbers from previous seasons:

Henry just posted the worst season of his career. Because he’s a beast, he was still slightly more efficient than his teammates (by 0.1-percent). But his 2021 campaign was a far cry from the 130-percent BAE Rating seasons of his prime (and holy shit was he good in 2018).

Final Word

Very often, the decline for top-tier running backs comes suddenly and without warning. With that in mind, the performance that Derrick Henry gave us last year should be viewed as a gift. While still providing your fantasy teams with elite raw production, he whispered in the ears of anyone listening that the end is coming.

Many fantasy gamers have heeded that warning. Henry’s startup ADP has dropped from the early second round (15.5) a year ago to the top of the fourth (37.2) this offseason. I contend that that’s still too high. Among players going just after Henry are George Kittle, Elijah Moore, Michael Pittman, and Travis Etienne. You should certainly be opting for guys like that over him in startups. And if you can pivot via trade from a 28-year old running back with almost 1500 NFL touches on his body who just posted the least healthy and least efficient season of his career to a younger, similarly-tiered player, you’d be irresponsible not to.

It may come with one last 1,000-yard swan song at 4.1 yards per carry. But it’s better to be out early than late. The reign of King Henry is coming to end.