Derrick Henry: The Exception To Every Rule

Some things in life are outliers. Not only do these things randomly and sporadically occur, they make us humans feel, well, rather human. Outliers make us feel uncomfortable and we constantly search for reasons or lessons to explain them.

What does football, data, evolution, biology all have in common? They are all prone to outliers. Everything can not be explained. We can’t escape the unexplainable, no matter how hard we try. The thing is, not all outliers are bad. Just because we can’t fully justify an event — or in this case, a player — does not automatically make the event (or player) abominable.

Titans’ rookie running back Derrick Henry is an outlier.

To be honest, I have been sitting on this article, unfinished, for nearly three weeks. I was searching for a direction to take the piece and a way to fully interpret Henry’s data. Now that some time has passed since the Titans surprisingly took Henry in the second round, it’s time to take a plunge into Henry’s Yards Created data.

Note: If this is your first time reading Yards Created, please check out the introductory piece where I lay out the entire process in detail here.

Games Sampled 

Gm Att. ruYds ruTDs Rec ReYds reTDs
Auburn 46 271 1 0 0 0
Tx AM 32 236 2 1 18 0
UGA 26 148 1 0 0 0
Ole Miss 23 127 1 5 39 0
Mich St. 20 75 2 1 -6 0

With 2,219 rushing yards in 2015, it’s pretty hard to find a hole in Henry’s traditional game logs. He carried the rock 18 or more times in 12 of the Crimson Tide’s 15 games and had 10 games of 100-plus yards rushing. Henry’s 28 rushing touchdown’s tied Terry Metcalf, Willis McGahee, Toby Gerhart and Jay Ajayi for the eighth on the single-season rushing touchdown list. In a true “video game-like” fashion, Henry scored at least one touchdown in every game in 2015.

Alabama’s Yards Blocked and Derrick Henry’s Yards Created

Per Att. Data Yards Blocked/Att. Yards Created/Att.
Total Attempts: 150 1.14 4.02

Of the eight running backs in the 2016 rookie class I have completed for Yards Created so far, Derrick Henry’s Yards Created per attempt is the lowest:

Name Yards Created/Att.
Kenyan Drake* 6.11
Ezekiel Elliott 5.98
C.J. Prosise 4.90
Jordan Howard 4.70
Paul Perkins 4.61
Devontae Booker 4.43
Kenneth Dixon 4.14
Derrick Henry 4.02

Because this project is still in it’s infancy, I don’t have a great leaping point to explain Henry’s low data point. Alabama’s offensive line owns the fourth highest Yards Blocked per attempt in the eight finished samples and the Crimson Tide’s offensive line ranked above average (24th of 128) in Football Outsiders’ Opportunity Rate statistic that measures “the percentage of carries that gain at least five yards”.

However, Henry is third in this class (so far) only to Ezekiel Elliott and Kenyan Drake in something that may be unexpected: Yards Created on outside runs per attempt.

Run Type Data

Inside% Outside% Counter% Toss% Other%
74.0% 19.3% 0.0% 6.0% 0.0%

And here is Alabama’s formation type on Henry’s rush attempts:

Shotgun/Pistol Under Center
71.3% 28.7%

While Henry ran nearly 3-of-4 runs inside, he was incredibly productive on outside attempts. Alabama’s offensive line averaged more Yards Blocked per attempt on outside runs, too (1.08 on inside runs versus 1.72 on outside runs).

Henry created a robust 7.03 yards per attempt on outside runs (third best) versus 3.28 yards per attempt on inside runs (2nd worst). Below is a full breakdown of Yards Created on inside and outside runs for the running backs I have finished. It’s sorted by charted attempts:

Name Attempts YC In/Att YC Out/Att
D. Henry 150 3.28 7.03
D. Booker 145 4.81 3.14
J. Howard 110 4.36 5.88
E. Elliott 108 5.98 7.63
K. Dixon 92 3.02 5.54
P. Perkins 85 4.59 4.71
C.J. Prosise 84 3.70 5.36
K. Drake 37 5.77 7.53

Henry’s down numbers on inside attempts are a little worrisome, but I do think the sheer number of times Alabama’s forced Henry up the middle has something to do with the low point. If anything, this should dispel qualms that Henry is “limited” to just being an inside runner.

Missed Tackles Forced (Rushing)

MT Power/Att. MT Elusiveness/Att. MT Speed/Att.
0.19 0.05 0.07

And here are Derrick Henry’s missed tackles forced receiving on a per target and opportunity (targets plus carries) basis:

Missed Tackles Forced (Receiving) and Missed Tackles Forced Per Opportunity

MT Power/Tgt MT Elusive/Tgt MT Speed/Tgt MT/Opp.
0.25 0.13 0.25 0.316

There are no surprises here. Henry’s 96th percentile weight-adjusted Speed Score makes him a one man demolition team in the open field. Any attempt to tackle him above the waist after he gets a head of steam is completely and utterly futile.

The best way I can describe Henry’s running style is through my favorite childhood game, Mario Kart. Henry is essentially a mix of Bowser’s brute force, speed and strength paired with the “star” power up that allows you eviscerate your opponents without batting an eye.

Derrick Henry is an outlier, but he also tests the limits of human physics. 84% of Henry’s total missed tackles forced came from either power (60%) or speed (24%).

Route/Target Data plus Average Depth of Target

Routes/G Targets/G aDOT
4.40 1.60 -1.88

And here is where Henry ran his routes from:

Backfield Route% Split Wide%
100.0% 0.0%

We don’t have to spend much time here. Every scouting report and pre/post-draft article on the internet mentions Henry’s lack of pass catching prowess at Alabama. It’s not a secret that Henry only caught 17 balls in 39 career games with the Crimson Tide. Instead, we’ll spend a little time more time on what he was acutally asked to do at Alabama below.

Route Type

Route Occurrences
Check/Release 40.9%
Flat 27.3%
Screen 31.8%

My main concern on Henry isn’t if Henry can catch passes out of the backfield (he can) but whether or not he’s a natural receiver. Alabama did not ask Henry to run routes often (4.4 times per-game) and did not ask him to run many different types of routes. As you can see from the table above, all of Henry’s routes were near the line of scrimmage and essentially demanded him to run a few yards and turn around.

He’s a rookie and no running back is without flaws, but Henry’s main source of improvement in his first two seasons must be on passing downs. He’s a solid pass blocker (more on that below), but I imagine he’ll be a two-down back if he can’t diversify his skill-set in the passing game.

To be clear, Henry is not a liability as a receiver and I am sort of willing to take his lack of production with a grain of salt. Alabama did not ask him to run many routes in their offense, but that does not mean he can’t ever become a proficient pass catching back.

Pass Protection

Pass Pro Att. Pass Pro Execution %
28 71.4%

Henry’s Pass Protection Execution percentage (PPE%), ranks tied for fifth (of 8 so far) in the class. He’s obviously a stonewall of a human being and his massive frame gives him the ability to stop blitzing linebackers or defensive ends in their tracks. Like most running backs coming into the NFL, this is still an area that needs minor improvement.

The Terminator

The Tennessee Titans selecting Henry in the second round two months after trading for and giving DeMarco Murray $12.5 million in guaranteed money was, at the very least, not expected.

However, Murray is 28 and has nearly 1,400 career touches on the odometer. The Titans are also committing to an “exotic smashmouth” style of offense that could only be dreamed up by a coach with the name of “Mike Mularkey”.

In any event, I really don’t know how the Titans will split the running back workload in Tennessee. Murray could very well start the season as the No. 1 with Henry mixing in for 10-12 carries per-game. It’s also May. Teams don’t start minicamps until mid-June.

I do know that even in a prestigious college conference like the SEC, Henry was a man amongst boys on nearly every carry. Even though he is an outlier and doesn’t fit the typical NFL mold of running backs, Henry’s rushing ability is a welcomed addition to the league. His career arc — through success or failure — will be one to admire.

Like RotoViz and FantasyLabs’ Matthew Freedman has mentioned, regardless of what transpires in the coming years, Henry’s college career was nothing short of a missing scene from Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator series. Henry is the machine.

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2 thoughts on “Derrick Henry: The Exception To Every Rule

  1. Hey Graham, great stuff. Can I get your email? Would love to talk about this project and get some inspiration.

    Like

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