The upcoming Derrick Henry fantasy football draft dilemma

Months ago, Derrick Henry told us — in the clearest possible terms — that fading him in 2022 fantasy drafts would be unwise. It turns out he's not a big ZeroRB guy, surprisingly enough.

Henry finished second in the NFL in rushing yards (1,538), rushing touchdowns (13) and scrimmage yards (1,936) this season, so his self-assessment was pretty much dead-on. Fading him was, in fact, a colossal mistake. He established new career highs in receptions (33) and receiving yards (398) this season while averaging 5.1 yards per touch, matching his career rate. He also led all running backs in rushing yards after contact, with 1,257.

Honestly, it's tough to identify any advanced or standard rushing performance metric in which Henry wasn't excellent. According to PFF, he ranked third at his position in missed tackles (69) and third in runs of 10-plus yards (37). Among all running backs with at least 100 carries, Henry's 3.60 yards after contact per attempt ranked fourth, behind three guys who had much smaller rushing workloads (Tony Pollard, Rhamondre Stevenson and Khalil Herbert).

Simply put, Henry was phenomenal. If not for the fact that Tennessee rested him as a precaution in Week 17, ahead of an all-or-nothing matchup with Jacksonville, he might've claimed his third career rushing crown. Henry is an all-time player, almost certainly headed for Canton down the road.

Watching him casually toss NFL defensive players out of the camera frame remains an absolute pleasure:

But as you can tell from our headline, we didn't come here purely to celebrate one of the great runners of this or any era. No, our purpose today is to make you worry.

When the Yahoo Fantasy team made our first back-of-the-envelope attempt to sketch out the first round of 2023 fantasy drafts, only one of us (and it wasn't me) included Henry among the first dozen picks. Again, this seems ludicrous based on 2022 performance. There's no data or video evidence to suggest that Henry is slipping. He's the foundation of his team's offense, and he's coming off a season in which he averaged more than 120 scrimmage yards per game. When we choose to exclude a guy like that from the first round of fantasy drafts, we should probably show our work.

Basically, our pessimism regarding Henry's future production stems from two issues, only one of which is fixable.

At the moment, Tennessee's offense needs everything except a running back

The Titans just fired three offensive assistants, including the OC. The team ranked 30th in the league in total yards (296.8 YPG) this past season and 28th in scoring (17.5 PPG). Tennessee does not have a difference-maker at quarterback, nor does it have an obvious QB-of-the-future on the roster. The offensive line needs to be rebuilt. The team's receiving corps is a starless group with a pair of quality building blocks (Treylon Burks and Chigoziem Okonkwo) but no one with real gravity — that is to say, there's no A.J. Brown here. Cap space is a huge issue, too.

Henry is currently the only aspect of Tennessee's offense that should stress any opponent. Realistically, the team should probably view him as a trade chip because the Titans simply have too many holes to fill. If Henry somehow finds his way to a richer offensive environment, it would likely boost his fantasy profile, even if his projected workload takes a hit.

And that brings us to the greater (and unresolvable) worry with Henry.

Derrick Henry will be harder to trust in fantasy because of the Titans' lack of offensive options. (Photo by Mike Carlson/Getty Images)
Derrick Henry will be harder to trust in fantasy because of the Titans' lack of offensive options. (Photo by Mike Carlson/Getty Images)

Age and mileage eventually catch up with everyone

In three of the past four seasons, Henry has led the NFL in carries — and he would've done it in 2021, but he suffered a significant foot injury. He has carried the ball 1,249 times over the past four years, which makes him a wild outlier in an era of committee backfields. Henry also just turned 29, an age at which we can reasonably expect any running back to be well past his peak. Generally speaking, it's better to be a year too early than a year too late when fading players at this spot because the position isn't known for gradual declines.

Just five years ago, back in 2018, the top three players off the board in a typical fantasy draft were Todd Gurley, David Johnson and Le'Veon Bell. At the time, all three were considerably younger than Henry is right now. By 2020, each of those guys was on a new NFL team, and fantasy managers were avoiding them all. Two are now out of the league, and the third played only five games in 2022, handling 16 touches in a backup role.

Of course, it's possible that Henry will age gracefully, gradually and not at all like so many contemporaries. Here's hoping that's the case. He's awesome. Despite his age and team context, he'll fall only so far in 2023 drafts because his recent stats tell a great story.

If we had extended our way-too-early first rounds a bit further, Henry certainly would've made my overall top 20 (and possibly 14). But when you're on the clock at the top of a draft, ideally you target a player with Henry's upside but without the questions.