History leaves clues for how Tennessee Titans' Derrick Henry will fare after 2,000-yard season

Ben Arthur
Nashville Tennessean

In July, on the second day of training camp, Tennessee Titans star running back Derrick Henry was asked whether he thinks about becoming the first NFL player to rush for 2,000 yards in back-to-back seasons. 

His response was predictable.   

“I don’t get caught up on that,” Henry said. “I just focus on me getting better. I know I say that a lot."

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If Henry is to get better in 2021, then history will take care of itself. 

How Henry follows becoming just the eighth 2,000-yard rushing season in league history is one of the biggest questions facing the Titans as they open the season Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals at Nissan Stadium (noon, CBS). 

Because the truth is, running backs don't just struggle to match their production after reaching 2,000 yards. They often don't come close. 

None of that is to say Henry can't become the first to reach 2,000 in consecutive seasons. He has the benefit of playing on what should be one of the NFL's best offenses — made better by the addition of Julio Jones. And the league adding a 17th game for the first time in history should also nudge the odds in his favor. 

"People know he is going to be a large part in what we do," Titans coach Mike Vrabel said, "and we all have to be ready for that challenge.”  

But could Henry’s inevitable decline begin this season? Or will the 27-year-old continue to ascend, with viral stiff-arms and bruising runs that wear out opponents as games – and the season – wear on?

There's no way to project exactly how Henry will fare in 2021, or what his workload will be,  but the production of the seven other running backs in the 2K club leaves clues for what to expect.

Good chance Derrick Henry won't come close to 2,000 yards

Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry (22) runs up the field during a training camp practice at Saint Thomas Sports Park Friday, July 30, 2021 in Nashville, Tenn.

Six of the seven other running backs to hit 2,000 yards reached 1,000 the following season. 

The one who didn’t was Hall of Famer Terrell Davis, who’s health and production fell off dramatically after posting 392 carries for 2,008 yards and a league-leading 21 rushing touchdowns for the 1998 Broncos. The dropoff followed back-to-back Super Bowl runs with Denver, adding 190 carries for 1,049 yards in that two-year playoff span on top of an incredible regular season workload. Davis had at least 345 carries for three straight seasons from 1996-98. 

Barry Sanders had the best performance immediately after a 2,000-yard season, with 1,491 yards on 343 carries in 1998 — his final season before his shocking retirement. 

It’s not as if 2,000-yard rushers haven’t sniffed 2,000 after reaching it, it just has never happened right away. Both Eric Dickerson and O.J. Simpson surpassed 1,800 rushing yards two seasons after hitting the 2,000-yard milestone.

Here's how each running back in the 2K club fared the year after reaching 2,000 yards, in descending order: 

  • Barry Sanders, Lions→ 1,491 (1998)
  • Chris Johnson, Titans → 1,364 (2010)
  • Eric Dickerson, Rams → 1,234 (1985)
  • Adrian Peterson, Vikings → 1,266 (2013)
  • O.J. Simpson, Bills → 1,125 (1974)
  • Jamal Lewis, Ravens → 1,006 (2004)
  • Terrell Davis, Broncos → 211 (1999)

Here's the highest rushing total for backs in the 2K club during any season after reaching 2,000 yards: 

  • Eric Dickerson, Rams → 1,821 (1986) 
  • O.J. Simpson, Bills → 1,817 (1975)
  • Barry Sanders, Lions → 1,491 (1998)
  • Adrian Peterson, Vikings → 1,485 (2015)
  • Chris Johnson, Titans → 1,364 (2010)
  • Jamal Lewis, Browns → 1,304 (2007)
  • Terrell Davis, Broncos → 701 (2001)

Henry could have a few more Pro Bowl seasons

Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry (22) pulls in a catch during a training camp practice at Nissan Stadium Monday, Aug. 16, 2021 in Nashville, Tenn.

Five of the seven 2,000-yard rushers had multiple 1,000-yard seasons after the 2K milestone. It could have been six with Sanders, who stepped away from football while he was still playing at a high level. 

Dickerson had six 1,000-yard seasons after rushing for an NFL record 2,105 yards for the 1984 Rams. Ex-Tennessee Vols running back Jamal Lewis and former Titans star Chris Johnson had four. Adrian Peterson and Simpson had three. 

Here’s the breakdown of 1,000-yard seasons, with Pro Bowl and first-team All-Pro selections after the milestone year: 

  • Eric Dickerson → 1,000 yards: 6, Pro Bowl: 6, All-Pro: 5 
  • O.J. Simpson → 1,000 yards: 3, Pro Bowl: 3, All-Pro: 3
  • Adrian Peterson → 1,000 yards: 3, Pro Bowl: 2, All-Pro: 1
  • Barry Sanders → 1,000 yards: 1, Pro Bowl: 1, All-Pro: 0
  • Chris Johnson → 1,000 yards: 4, Pro Bowl: 1, All-Pro: 0
  • Jamal Lewis → 1,000 yards: 4, Pro Bowl: 0, All-Pro: 0
  • Terrell Davis → 1,000 yards: 0, Pro Bowl: 0, All-Pro: 0

Another 300-carry season not out of question for Derrick Henry

Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry (22) runs through the defense during a training camp practice at Saint Thomas Sports Park Wednesday, Aug. 11, 2021 in Nashville, Tenn.

Henry has led the NFL in carries in back-to-back seasons, with 303 in 2019 and 378 in 2020.

Sanders and Johnson are the only two running backs to have at least 300 rushing attempts the year after rushing for 2,000 yards. But four of the other five (again, Davis is the exception) had at least one more 300-carry campaign.

Dickerson is the only one who had more than one, and he had three, including a 404-carry season in 1986 – the fourth most in a single season in NFL history –  two years after rushing for 2,000.

Running backs who reached 300 carries the year after 2,000-yard season:

  • Barry Sanders → 343 carries, 1998
  • Chris Johnson → 358 carries, 2010

Number of 300-carry seasons after the 2,000-yard season: 

  • 3 → Eric Dickerson
  • 1 → Chris Johnson, O.J. Simpson, Barry Sanders, Adrian Peterson, Jamal Lewis

What to watch for with Derrick Henry

Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry (22) throws balls to fans in the stands after an open training camp practice at Nissan Stadium Monday, Aug. 16, 2021 in Nashville, Tenn.

Entering Year 6, including the playoffs (84 games), Henry has recorded 1,318 rushing attempts and 6,530 yards. Just three of the seven other running backs had racked up a bigger workload than Henry entering the season after their 2,000-yard milestone: Peterson, Davis and Sanders. 

Peterson stayed elite for a couple more years, albeit with injuries. Health derailed Davis. And with Sanders, it’s hard to say what would’ve happened in the long haul because he played just one more season after rushing for 2,000 yards.

A look at the workload of each of the running backs entering their first season after their 2,000-yard rushing campaign (regular season and playoffs): 

  • Barry Sanders → 2,810 carries; 14,164  yards
  • Adrian Peterson → 1,847 carries; 9,216 yards
  • Terrell Davis → 1,547 carries; 7,553 yards
  • Derrick Henry → 1,318 carries; 6,530 yards
  • O.J. Simpson → 1,108 carries; 5,181 yards
  • Jamal Lewis → 1,121 carries; 5,130 yards
  • Eric Dickerson → 825 carries; 4,135 yards
  • Chris Johnson → 620 carries; 3,306 yards

Why Henry is different from the other 2k backs

Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry (22) waits for the next drill during a training camp practice at Saint Thomas Sports Park Tuesday, Aug. 3, 2021 in Nashville, Tenn.

Henry, at 6-foot-3 and 247 pounds, is the biggest running back in NFL history to have rushed for 2,000 yards. That could give him an advantage in weathering the pounding for 2021 and beyond. 

The next closest in size is Dickerson, who was 6-3 but more than 20 pounds lighter.

Here's the height and weight of each back in the 2K club, according to Pro Football Reference:  

  • Derrick Henry → 6-3, 247 pounds
  • Eric Dickerson → 6-3, 220 pounds
  • O.J. Simpson → 6-2, 212 pounds
  • Adrian Peterson → 6-1, 220 pounds
  • Jamal Lewis → 5-11, 245 pounds
  • Terrell Davis → 5-11, 206 pounds
  • Chris Johnson → 5-11, 195 pounds 
  • Barry Sanders → 5-8, 203 pounds

Ben Arthur covers the Tennessee Titans for The USA TODAY Network. Contact him at barthur@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter at @benyarthur.