As you know from my evergreen content, I’m a bit of a fantasy ageist. It’s nothing against the individual players who I grow to love – football is simply a young man’s game, and father time is undefeated. Entering his age-29 season and yet still with a significant price tag in 2023 fantasy drafts, Derrick Henry provokes an intriguing superstar versus age discussion.
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Volume of Work
Many have theorized that a drop-off in production should be measured by volume, not age. Pro Football Focus dove into much of this research in an excellent piece of work. They noted a steady decline after about 1,500 rushing attempts.
PFF explained heavy workload backs seem to plateau closer to 2,000 carries, as these players are the elite ones at the position and often survive longer than others.
PFF compared how draft position factors into running back aging. Day 1 picks generally reach a negative RYOE (rush yards over expectation) around Year 6, seeing another dip in Year 8.
Out of active players, only free agents Ezekiel Elliott (1,881) and Mark Ingram (1,817) have more career rushing attempts than Derrick Henry (1,750). Entering Year 8, the odds are stacked against Henry being able to continue to produce at an elite level.
To gain an idea of how similar players fared in this unique scenario, I used the excellent RotoViz Screener. The screener allowed us to take all running backs who have seen at least 1,000 combined rushing attempts in four consecutive seasons. It delivered the following results.
You can see that no running back in the last 13 years has compiled more rushing attempts than Henry’s 1,219 during any four-year stretch.
Here is how each player fared in their age 29 season in terms of PPR points, compared to their production during their voluminous stretch.
|PLAYER||PPR PG (4-Year)||PPR - Age 29||DIFF|
Only Frank Gore and Matt Forte scored more points per game in their age-29 seasons than during their four-year “workhorse” stretch. Ray Rice and Todd Gurley retired prior to reaching their age-29 season. Marshawn Lynch, Chris Johnson, Adrian Peterson, DeMarco Murray, and Alfred Morris all saw massive declines of five or more fantasy points per game.
You can see a closer look at the age-29 seasons on this table. Lynch, Foster, and Peterson all played less than half of the season. Five players rushed for under 4 yards per carry, while only Morris and Gore topped 4.5 yards per carry.
The only players who averaged more than 15 PPR points per game did so by catching passes: Forte (6.4 receptions per game), Foster (5.5), and McCoy (3.7). Forte (264 receptions), Foster (181), and McCoy (182) were much more productive receivers than Henry (87) during their voluminous four-year stretch. It’s unlikely Henry suddenly sees a significant receiving workload for the first time in his career at 29 years old, rendering it even more unlikely that he can succeed as he ages.
In addition to age and volume concerns, Henry isn’t entering the most favorable team opportunity. The Titans finished 7-10 last season and have attempted to draft their future quarterback for the second straight season. After trading A.J. Brown last season, they caught falling knife Malik Willis in the third round. This year, the Titans selected Will Levis 33rd overall after he was expected to be a top-5 selection.
While Ryan Tannehill will certainly start the season, the Titans appear to be a team that is looking toward the future. There is the chance that they execute to begin the season in a terrible division but if struggles begin early, there will certainly be chants to see what they have in Levis. If that happens, the Titans may consistently be playing from behind, scoring fewer touchdowns, and becoming more pass-heavy. None of this would be ideal for Henry.
The Titans selected running back Tyjae Spears in the third round and while he certainly won’t be a threat to early down work, he may steal valuable third-down work. Titans offensive coordinator Tim Kelly said they are going to give Spears “as much as he can handle.” Spears is also reported to be “one of the most active players” this offseason.
When selecting a running back at the top of the draft, I’m searching for legendary upside. Henry, already an NFL legend, is in a scenario where drafters are paying for past production rather than future production.
Judging by the history of older running backs with a bunch of volume, and those entering their age-29 season, Henry appears to have more downside than legendary upside. He’s a player that I would prefer to fade at his current late-second-round cost in 2023 fantasy leagues.