If the Tennessee Titans are going to reach the Super Bowl next season, they’ll need running back Derrick Henry to play at an MVP level.

Henry, who missed nine games last season due to a foot injury, is just two years removed from one of the best seasons we’ve ever seen from a running back. In 2020, the former Alabama star rushed for 2,027 yards and 17 touchdowns.

If Henry can return to that level of production (or at least in that neighborhood), it would likely mean that Tennessee’s offense is operating at a high level.

ESPN’s Bill Barnwell, however, doesn’t expect Henry to return to his 2020 level of play. Instead, Barnwell is expecting the star running back to suffer a significant dropoff in production in 2022.

Oct 10, 2021; Jacksonville, Florida, USA; Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry (22) is interviewed while Tennessee Titans fans watch after the game against the Jacksonville Jaguars at TIAA Bank Field. Mandatory Credit: Matt Pendleton-USA TODAY Sports

Barnwell projected this week that Henry will finish the 2022 season with 260 carries for 1,170 yards and 11 touchdowns.

This isn’t a blind projection from Barnwell. History suggests that Henry will regress in 2022 due to the workload he received in 2020 and before his injury in 2021.

From ESPN:

Henry should be fully healed from that foot injury for the 2022 season, which is great news. However, his efficiency had already slipped during the first half of the last season, with his production instead propped up by the largest workload in NFL history for a back through eight games. After 378 carries in 2020, he had a staggering 219 carries before his injury. And on a run-by-run basis, after looking like a force of nature in 2019 and 2020, he was ordinary.

Barnwell noted that Henry’s yards per carry average in 2021 was 1.1 yards less than his yards per carry average in 2020. When players in the past have experienced that kind of decline, they’ve rarely rebounded to their previous production levels.

From ESPN:

Thirty-three other backs since the merger had this sort of dramatic year-to-year drop-off in efficiency. Do you know how many backs returned to their prior yards per carry figure at any point over the remainder of their careers? One.

Todd Gurley averaged 4.8 yards per carry for the 2015 Rams as a rookie, dropped off to 3.2 as a sophomore and then roared back to 4.7 in 2017 and 4.9 the following season. He suffered a similar drop-off in 2019 and wasn’t able to respond in 2020, which led to him dropping out of the league last year.

That group of 33 running backs that Barnwell mentioned includes Walter Payton, Emmitt Smith, Earl Campbell, and Adrian Peterson. It’s probably wise to take those numbers seriously.

Henry, however, is a physical specimen who might be able to avoid the regression that those running backs experienced.

It’s still concerning, though, that Henry’s numbers slipped so much last season after being heavily used in 2020 and early 2021. Henry could always rebound and return to his 2020 form, but I think it’s reasonable to suggest that he’s on the downside of his career as a 28-year-old running back who has been heavily used the past couple of years.

Featured image via Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports