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2016 Rookie Review: Derrick Henry

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Nashville’s favorite Alabama student got his career off to a great start in 2016.

Tennessee Titan v Miami Dolphins Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images

As I mentioned at the top of my review of Kevin Dodd, NFL players often make the largest jump in performance between the end of their rookie year and the beginning of their second year. Derrick Henry, the Titans second year back and the subject of this article, has received plenty of praise from his coaches during OTAs for the strides he’s made since the end of the 2016 season.

Henry told Jim Wyatt that he has packed on more muscle (seriously, how is that even possible?) and spent a lot of time working on his pass protection, route running, and catching while taking classes at Alabama this spring. Head Coach Mike Mularkey has praised Henry’s receiving skills in chats with the press during OTAs and also said that his massive running back looks faster this summer than he did last year.

Henry was a somewhat controversial pick when the Titans took him in the 2nd round at #45 overall despite being the reigning Heisman Trophy winner and one of the most productive backs in recent college history. Many fans felt the Titans were set at running back with the addition of DeMarco Murray and had bigger holes in the roster elsewhere. Those fans weren’t wrong. A wide receiver like Michael Thomas or a cornerback like MacKensie Alexander had to at least cross Jon Robinson’s mind at pick 45, but he obviously felt like Henry was too good a player to pass up. He hasn’t been wrong either. Henry’s rookie year was extremely promising as well despite getting limited snaps behind the AFC’s leading rusher.

Henry 2016 Stats.csv

Week Opp Carries Rush Yds YPC Rush TD Tgt Rec Rec Yds Rec TD Ctch%
Week Opp Carries Rush Yds YPC Rush TD Tgt Rec Rec Yds Rec TD Ctch%
1 MIN 5 3 0.6 0 2 2 41 0 100.00%
2 DET 9 40 4.44 0 1 1 9 0 100.00%
3 OAK 10 45 4.5 0 0 0 0 0 0.00%
4 HOU 3 9 3 0 0 0 0 0 0.00%
5 MIA 7 54 7.71 0 0 0 0 0 0.00%
6 CLE 2 7 3.5 0 2 2 20 0 100.00%
7 IND 1 3 3 0 1 0 0 0 0.00%
8 JAX 16 60 3.75 1 5 4 37 0 80.00%
9 SD 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0.00%
10 GNB 9 31 3.44 0 0 0 0 0 0.00%
11 IND 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0.00%
12 CHI 8 60 7.5 1 0 0 0 0 0.00%
13 BYE 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0.00%
14 DEN 12 42 3.5 0 1 1 5 0 100.00%
15 KAN 9 58 6.44 2 0 0 0 0 0.00%
16 JAX 4 13 3.25 0 2 2 22 0 100.00%
17 HOU 15 65 4.33 1 1 1 3 0 100.00%
TOTAL --- 110 490 4.45 5 15 13 137 0 86.70%

Henry’s stats were very strong in 2016. His 4.45 yards per carry ranked 12th in the NFL (minimum 100 attempts) despite only having a season long rush of 22 yards. Murray finished just a couple spots behind at 14th in the league. The combination of a high yards per carry and a low season long shows a level of consistency to his production throughout the season and his numbers look even better when you look at advanced stats.

Football Outsiders DVOA, which measures a player’s defense-adjusted value on a per play basis, ranks Henry as their 4th best running back in the NFL last year (Murray was 24th). They also measure success rate for running backs where “success”, in general, is defined as a back getting 40% of the yards to gain on 1st down, 60% on 2nd down, and 100% on 3rd down. Henry is a strong performer here as well finishing 6th in the NFL by that metric (Murray was 11th). Among running backs with at least 100 touches during the 2016 season, Henry finished 8th in the NFL with 0.236 broken tackles per touch (Murray was 43rd at 0.150 broken tackles per touch).

Just a couple more stats from Sharp Football that I found interesting regarding Henry. He gained at least 4 yards on 50% of his carries which was good for 4th best in the NFL for backs with at least 100 carries (NFL average was 43%), which again underscores his consistency. Henry was considerably more effective in the red zone than Murray was, recording a 77% success rate in the red zone versus Murray’s 50% (using the same definition of success described in the paragraph above).

His work as a receiver out of the backfield offered a pretty small sample size since the Titans only threw to Henry 15 times in 2016, but the results were good when they did: 13 catches for 137 yards.

A lot of credit for the success of both running backs is due to Taylor Lewan, Quinton Spain, Ben Jones, Josh Kline, and Jack Conklin, but I believe the relationship between a back and his line is symbiotic, as most football relationships are. When things are going well for a running game, as it did for the 2016 Titans, the line is helping the back and the back is helping the line.

The things that get talked about the most with Henry are the measurables. That will happen when you’re a 6’-3”, 247 pound running back who looks like he’s chiseled out of stone and runs a 4.54 second 40 with a 37” vertical and a 130” (!!!!!) broad jump, but just having elite size and speed does not make you a good running back. Hi, Chris Henry! You also need vision, agility, toughness, pass blocking, and the ability to set up your blocks. Oh, and it would be nice if you could run routes and catch the ball too.

Let’s start with Henry as a runner. Watching his carries throughout the season showed me a player who really became more refined as a runner as the season went on. Almost half of his rushing yards (48.6% to be exact) came in the last 5 games of the season. His yards per carry also jumped from 4.06 ypc over the first 11 games to 4.96 ypc over the last 5. There is no doubt that Henry improved as the season went on and the tape backs that up.

Henry showed a tendency early in the season to try to bounce everything outside rather than trusting and following his blocks. This is something that is very common with young running backs who are used to being able to outrun every player on the field. Here is an example of that. The play is designed to go between Taylor Lewan and Phillip Supernaw and the hole is there, but Henry bounces it. Henry’s speed allows him to run right around the unblocked corner for a nice run here, but this was a common thing for him to do early in the season and it won’t always work out as well as it did here. That being said, Henry’s speed to get to the corner and turn it is truly incredible for a guy his size.

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Here is an example of how bouncing can go wrong. This is an outside zone run concept where Henry has some leeway to read and attack the defense when he sees a hole open. On this play, Harrison Smith perfectly times his safety blitz, Henry sees him, and rather than cutting upfield where a hole had opened behind Quinton Spain, he tries to bounce outside and gets dropped for a big loss. Henry’s vision was mostly very impressive when watching him in 2016 as I’ll show later, but this instinct to bounce outside was something that he clearly worked to correct during the course of the season.

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Derrick Henry has a wicked stiff arm, especially when running to his left. With his elite strength and arm length, this isn’t surprising, but it is very impressive to watch. Here he uses it twice in a row to shake a couple defenders with clean shots at him. It is his preferred method for breaking tackles.

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This next play was one of his first touches as a Titan. He takes the short screen pass, shakes a couple tackles, and then works his way back across the field showcasing both his speed and elusiveness. You also get to see that right handed stiff arm again. Henry is a load to bring down in the open field.

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Check out the jump cut in the hole on this next play from a 247 pound back. Unreal. And then of course he runs through an arm tackle on the next level to pick up a few more yards.

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Henry was incredibly effective against light boxes in 2016. This play was well-blocked, but Henry shows good burst and vision getting through the hole and maximizing the yardage on the second level.

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Here’s another play from the same game. The Miami game was his best game from the first 11 weeks of the year. Watch him get skinny through the hole and slide through the arm tackles to get down field.

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I couldn’t create a Derrick Henry post in good faith without including a clip of him demoralizing Jalen Ramsey. I like this one because it shows Henry’s ability to manipulate with subtle movements. He gives Ramsey just a little jab step inside without slowing down and blows around him outside.

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This is a split zone concept which relies on Henry to read the blocks in front of him and pick his hole. The Titans run scheme was incredibly diverse last year which helped keep defenses on their toes. On this play Henry does a good job of reading and reacting to his blocks and then breaks it outside to use his speed around the corner again.

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Now we are getting to the part of the season where Henry really started to turn it on. This is another run that he bounces and uses his speed to win. Check out the pull block from Fasano taking out two linebackers by the way. The Titans will miss that in 2017.

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Here’s another zone split look. This time there is a wrinkle with DeMarco Murray lining up across from Jalston Fowler as a part of a diamond backfield formation. Murray is just a decoy on this play meant to keep the backside linebacker from crashing hard. The most impressive thing about Henry on this play is the jab step that helps set up Taylor Lewan’s block on the second level. The best backs set up their blockers for success by manipulating defenders with little nods and false steps that give their blockers leverage, Henry does it perfectly here. Also, Lewan is incredible on this run, effectively wiping 3 defenders out of the play.

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One of the features of Henry’s game is his ability to push a pile and consistently fall forward for yardage. This skill contributed to the very high success rates and very low stuff rates that I mentioned earlier. The next play is an example of that. He picks up about 4 additional yards by keeping his legs churning in the pile. Those hidden yards add up over the course of a game.

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The Chiefs game was probably my favorite game to watch of Henry’s. He ran like a man possessed and seemed intent on delivering punishment in the cold at the end of each run. Here he is attacking the hole, getting downfield, and lowering the shoulder on Eric Berry at the end of the run.

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Here is another great run. Getting skinny through the hole and then finishing the run on Berry again.

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Towards the end of the season Henry looked substantially more decisive. That’s to be expected as he got used to running behind a new line and playing in a new offense. I would expect to see him pick up where he left off when this season starts since he will be in the same offense with an extra offseason’s worth of preparation and running behind (probably) the same 5 guys who he spent 2016 with. Watch how decisive and quick he is in Week 17.

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As Graver pointed out in his excellent Murray post, the Titans used DeMarco Murray in the passing game extensively in 2016. Henry was rarely used in the passing game and when he was used, it was exclusively screens and delayed flat routes. Most looked about like this next play. Easy route, easy catch. Henry did look natural catching the football when asked though and from reports this offseason it sounds like we could see him expand on this part of his game this year. I would love to see that since getting Henry loose in the secondary is always a good thing for the Titans.

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Henry was mostly very good at pass protection for a rookie back. He showed good awareness for where the pressure was coming from and was adequate at slowing down the rusher to give Mariota time to get the pass away. I won’t bore you with a ton of pass pro GIFs, but here is one good example of Henry picking up a free blitzer from last season.

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Derrick Henry was better than I think most Titans fans expected in 2016. By midseason, there were lots of people calling for him to receive more snaps and I tend to agree. From the time Murray injured his foot in Week 8, until after the bye week it was pretty clear that he was less than 100% and Henry had really played well and appeared to have more juice. Over the last 5 games of the 2016 season we saw Henry start to get more work. From Week 1 through Week 11, DeMarco Murray received 77.4% of the carries from the Titans halfbacks, but from Week 12 on that number dropped to 62.8%. I suspect that will be closer to the ratio we see from the backfield in 2017.

Don’t get me wrong, Murray is still the more complete back and he was incredible last year in addition to being a great team leader and locker room presence, but it just makes sense that the Titans would want both these guys as fresh as possible down the stretch this season heading in to a possible playoff berth.

Henry’s stats and tape both show a player that looks primed for a bigger role moving forward and I’m excited to see what he does with it. I expect to see more long runs from Henry in 2017 as he continues to break the habit of bouncing outside. You have to have the patience to crease an NFL defense to break off a long run at this level. He is already putting up great numbers in other areas so adding that big play piece along with a more advanced role in the passing game would round out his game and put him among the elite backs in the NFL.