One of the biggest storylines surrounding college football has been Derrick Henry and the Alabama Crimson Tide offense. Nick Saban has Alabama back in the playoffs for the second year in a row largely in part to Henry’s dominating presence on the field. Henry has been a monster for the Crimson Tide offense, rushing for 1,986 yards, 23 touchdowns and winning the Heisman Trophy along the way. Even with senior quarterback Jacob Coker and blue-chip receivers on the roster, the Crimson Tide offense has been largely dependent on Henry, who has accounted for 37% of Alabama’s total offense on the season.
But the big question surrounding Derrick Henry as he (presumably) gets ready to enter the NFL Draft is his durability. In the past two games against Auburn and Florida, Henry carried the ball 90 times for 460 yards. So far, he has carried the ball 339 times; good for an average of 26 carries a game. Assuming that Alabama makes the national championship game, that puts Henry on pace for 391 carries on the season.
This is one of the biggest concerns that scouts and draft analysts have with Henry. Yes, he is big and strong (6-2, 240 lbs.) but that many carries will wear on a player regardless of their size. In today’s NFL, running backs are the most expendable position on the field. Rarely do we see running backs getting contract extensions because teams will run their guy into the ground and just draft another one. We’re seeing that this year with DeMarco Murray, who was given a career high touches with the Cowboys in 2014 but then refused to sign him to the massive contract extension that he wanted as the league’s leading rusher. Murray, now with the Eagles, is averaging a career low 3.5 yards per carry.
So as we get closer to draft season, the question of durability and wear will be constantly applied to Henry. But how true is this narrative when comparing it to the past five years of the draft?
Yes, Henry has 349 touches (rushes and receptions) so far this season but this number isn’t unusual when we look at some of the other running backs drafted in the first two days of the NFL draft in the past five years. Le’Veon Bell, now a star running back for the Pittsburgh Steelers, had 414 touches in his final year at Michigan State and was drafted early in the second round. Melvin Gordon, the first round pick of the San Diego Chargers in this past draft, had 362 touches in his final season at Wisconsin. DeMarco Murray, the NFL’s leading rusher last season, had 353 touches in his final season at Oklahoma.
We can see that it isn’t unusual for a running back with this many carries in his final season to be picked highly in the draft. But another factor that we must also take into account is career touches, as in the total amount of touches that a player has seen across their entire college career. This factor might be even more important than touches in their last year because it accounts for the total workload that a running back has accumulated over their career, not just a third or fourth in their last year.
So where does Derrick Henry compare to other running backs if we look at career touches? Well, to be frank he doesn’t even come close to the top. Yes, Henry has 349 touches this year, but he only has 563 career touches at Alabama. In fact, the average career touches for running backs drafted in the first three rounds of the past five drafts is 604 touches.
Of course, while Henry still has perhaps two more games to increase this number, he still wont come close to some other big-name running backs that were drafted early. Doug Martin of Boise State was drafted in the first round with 684 career college touches. Melvin Gordon had 653 college touches. Mark Ingram, a fellow Alabama running back and Heisman Trophy winner, had 632 college touches and was a first round draft pick by the Saints. Le’Veon Bell had 749 total college touches at Michigan State but was still an early day two pick by the Steelers. In fact, Ezekiel Elliot, widely considered to be the best running back prospect in this year’s draft, has 622 career touches as compared to Henry’s 563.
Is Henry’s wear and tear a concern for NFL teams moving forward? Yes, because it’s a concern for all running back prospects. But we can see that Henry’s usage by Alabama is no different than other running back prospects drafted in the past five years of the NFL Draft. Henry has not been “run into the ground” more so than any other running back in college football. His draft position will be determined more by his play as a running back, not by teams concerns over his durability.