Will Christian McCaffrey, Derrick Henry, Alvin Kamara, Ezekiel Elliott bounce back? What went wrong, 2022 stat projections for each star

Will Christian McCaffrey, Derrick Henry, Alvin Kamara, Ezekiel Elliott bounce back? What went wrong, 2022 stat projections for each star post thumbnail image

Last season was difficult for the NFL’s highest-paid running backs. Dalvin Cook and Nick Chubb remained extremely effective when healthy, Austin Ekeler took over as a two-way force and Jonathan Taylor emerged as the league’s best young back, but the players who expected to be elite weren’t at that level.

Let’s break down what happened in 2021 with four of the most prominent backs — Christian McCaffrey, Derrick Henry, Alvin Kamara and Ezekiel Elliott — to get a sense of what they might do this season. Injuries played a role and could do so again, but in several cases, I found the stories most often being told about these four masked more significant issues. In other cases, I found the popular perception to be totally true.

I’ll run through all four using advanced metrics from ESPN Stats & Information and NFL Next Gen Stats and then project what an average season might look like for them in 2022. I’ll begin with Carolina, where the consensus No. 1 overall fantasy football pick in 2020 and 2021 has spent most of the past two years on the sidelines:

Jump to a section:
Ezekiel Elliott | Derrick Henry
Alvin Kamara | Christian McCaffrey

2021 stats: 99 carries for 442 yards and 1 TD; 37 catches (41 targets) for 343 yards and 1 TD

Let’s start with the league’s most expensive back. When McCaffrey signed his four-year, $64 million extension in 2020, he was the exception to arguments about signing running backs to extensions.

For one, his prodigious receiving numbers gave him a wider range of values than the typical back. More importantly, perhaps, his medical record was pristine: He hadn’t missed an NFL game while lining up for more than 90% of the Panthers’ offensive snaps in back-to-back seasons.

Since then, McCaffrey has only played about 21% of Carolina’s offensive snaps, missing 17 of 27 possible games with ankle, shoulder and hamstring injuries. The same player who ran for 100 or more yards six times across the first nine games of the 2019 season hasn’t hit that mark in a single game since. Teams reportedly called the Panthers to trade for McCaffrey this offseason, but with Carolina looking for a first-round pick and a young player, no deal was reached.

After seeing McCaffrey spend most of the past two campaigns on the sidelines, my first instinct was to wonder whether the 25-year-old was likely to be back on the field more often in 2022. He is expected to hit training camp at 100 percent, but the same thing was true last year and he was then injured halfway through Week 3.

How often does a running back struggle through two injury-riddled years and make it back to his previous productivity?

I looked at every back since the merger who had 300 touches in back-to-back seasons, a mark McCaffrey topped comfortably in both 2018 (326 touches) and 2019 (403). Then I focused on the players who followed those two big seasons by failing to top 300 touches combined over the two ensuing seasons. McCaffrey had 76 touches in 2020 and 136 a year ago for a total of 212 over the past two campaigns. Did those guys return to their starting jobs and play at a high level?

Not really, no. Many of the players who had this happen retired, including legends Curtis Martin, Walter Payton and Ricky Watters, the latter of whom might be the closest comp to McCaffrey. Those players were older, but guys who had this happen in their 20s also didn’t get back on track. (I’m leaving aside Travis Henry and Ray Rice, who had their careers impacted by off-field behavior.) Terrell Davis came back and played one more half-season as a starter before retiring.

There is no back who went through this sort of dramatic swing as early in their careers as McCaffrey has for the Panthers, with a few borderline exceptions around holdouts. Errict Rhett had two competent seasons to begin his career with Tampa Bay, held out and never established his prior level of performance. Bobby Humphrey (father of current Raven Marlon Humphrey) was a star for the Broncos in 1989 and 1990, held out for most of the 1991 season, was traded to the Dolphins before 1992 and was out of football for good the following season, in part because he had been shot in the leg in early 1993. McCaffrey was arguably the NFL’s best back at ages 22 and 23, didn’t hold out and was a part-time player at 24 and 25.

Stylistically, the other obvious comparison for McCaffrey is Le’Veon Bell, who seemed to fluctuate between years in which he was among the best (2014, 2016, 2017) and years in which he was either injured or absent (2015, 2018).

Bell held out for the entirety of that 2018 season and then joined the Jets, at which point his performance markedly declined. He averaged 4.3 yards per carry and nearly 129 yards from scrimmage per game with the Steelers and then failed to come close to those marks with the Jets, Chiefs, Ravens and Buccaneers. It would have been fair to suggest Bell’s receiving ability would have allowed the three-time Pro Bowler to stick around later into his career, but he wasn’t productive after his age-25 season, and he probably won’t be on an active roster in 2022.

McCaffrey’s contract guarantees he will be on Carolina’s roster this season, but no one can say with any confidence he’ll be anything like the player we saw in 2019. For one, even if a player stays healthy, anyone racking up 400-plus touches in a single campaign struggles to pull that off again. Twenty-eight players have carried the ball at least 400 times in a single season since the merger, but 19 of those were unable to do it a second time. It might seem like McCaffrey would have an advantage given his receiving work, but similarly versatile players such as Watters, Bell and Tiki Barber were only able to reach that mark once.

While this won’t enthuse fantasy football players, the Panthers have to be realistic about how and when they use McCaffrey. It’s better to have him play 70% of the offensive snaps and stay healthy all season than have him back in his 90%-plus role, only to go down injured. He could still get hurt in a reduced role, of course, but saving some wear and tear on his body in a 17-game season has to increase his chances of staying healthy.

There’s also the question of game script. In 2019, McCaffrey shouldered a significant workload in what amounted to garbage time. He touched the ball 77 times on snaps in which his team had a win expectancy of less than 5%, which was the most in the league by a comfortable margin. (Bell, then playing for the Jets, was in second with 61 touches.) The only player since 2007 to get more touches in garbage time was Steven Jackson, who had 78 in those same situations for the 2009 Rams. The Panthers aren’t expected to compete for a championship in 2022, but there’s no sense in using McCaffrey down multiple scores in the fourth quarter.

When McCaffrey is on the field, though, he’ll still be the focal point of the offense. DJ Moore has emerged as a star wideout despite questionable quarterback play, but McCaffrey has remained a prominent target over the past couple of years. After being targeted on 27.7% of his routes from 2018 to 2019, he has actually been targeted even more often over the past two seasons.

With Sam Darnold & Co. throwing McCaffrey the ball on 32.3% of his routes, the only players who have been targeted on a higher percentage of their routes over the previous two campaigns are James White and Davante Adams. McCaffrey also is averaging 2.6 yards per route run over that time frame, which is extremely efficient given his quarterbacks. The only other backs to top 2 yards per route run over that stretch are White and Alvin Kamara.

McCaffrey’s strength as a receiver should make him a useful player when healthy, if not necessarily one worth that massive contract.

Counting on the 2019 McCaffrey returning would be foolish, but even with reduced snaps in garbage time and the likelihood of missing a few games, it’s reasonable to imagine a scenario in which he lands around 1,500 yards from scrimmage in 2022. As always, the great unknown is whether we see the star back for four games or 14.

Projection for 2022: 165 carries for 740 yards and 6 TDs; 60 catches (75 targets) for 650 yards and 5 TDs

2021 stats: 219 carries for 937 yards and 10 TDs; 18 catches (20 targets) for 154 yards and 0 TDs

I wrote quite a bit about Henry when he went down with a broken right foot at midseason. He eventually returned for the postseason but wasn’t able to make much of an impact in a divisional-round loss to the Bengals. The top-seeded Titans gave him 20 carries, but the 2020 Offensive Player of the Year was only able to muster 62 yards, a touchdown and five first downs in a 19-16 defeat.

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:

Let’s run through these stats one by one. You know attempts and yards per carry already. Rush yards over expectation (RYOE) is an NFL Next Gen Stats model that predicts how many yards a runner will gain given the speed and location of the 22 players on the field when he gets the ball. Henry was well above average in 2019 and 2020 by this metric, which should be no surprise, but he was a league-average running back by this category last season.

First down rate is the percentage of times Henry turned a carry into a first down, while first downs over expectation (FDOE) is another use of Next Gen’s rushing model to determine how likely each carry was to turn into a first down. He was much better than the average back at turning his carries into first downs in 2019 and 2020, but he was worse than the average at converting in 2021.

Success rate is Next Gen’s measure of how often a running back keeps his team on schedule; the league average for halfbacks in 2021 was 40.1%. By just about every measure, Henry went from being a hyper-efficient back with incredible volume to an average-ish back with unprecedented volume, even before getting injured.

We don’t have this sort of advanced data for all backs, but I wanted to see what happened to players who dropped off in a similar fashion. I looked at every player who had at least 200 carries in back-to-back seasons and lost at least 1 yard per carry from their prior total. Henry dropped from 5.4 yards per carry in 2020 to 4.3 yards per carry last season, so he would qualify.

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. Thurman Thomas technically pulled it off by averaging 4.9 yards per carry over just 28 attempts in his final season in 2000, but realistically, this group is 1-for-33.

To be fair, there were players who came close, including LaDainian Tomlinson, who averaged 5.3 yards per carry, fell off to 3.9 and then hit 5.2 in a subsequent season. Jerome Bettis dropped from 4.9 yards per carry to 3.2 in his second season and eventually got back to 4.8, although it was eight years later.

It’s fair to want to treat Henry as a spectacular exception, but this group includes legends Walter Payton, Emmitt Smith, Earl Campbell and Adrian Peterson. The odds are heavily stacked against Henry averaging 5.1 yards per carry again over the rest of his career.

Henry could still have a lengthy, productive career from this point forward without hitting that 5 yards-per-carry mark. Bettis and Payton did just fine after their drop-off. My concern, though, is how heavily Henry’s success is tied to his explosiveness. For whatever comparisons people make between the 247-pound star and other backs, his real differentiator is his acceleration and big-play ability. Even after missing half of 2021, his 11 gains of at least 50 yards since 2018 are the second most of any player in football, behind only Saquon Barkley.

Henry still had two of those in his bag during the first half of 2021, including a memorable 76-yard scamper to the house against the Bills. If Henry’s acceleration is impacted by the foot injury or the massive workload he has endured over the past 2½ seasons, the bottom could fall out quickly.

He doesn’t do much more than catch screens as a receiver, and while he seems like he would be a great short-yardage back, the NFL Next Gen Stats model isn’t overwhelmed with his work there. Henry has carried the ball 107 times in short yardage since the start of 2018 and generated 82 first downs against an expectation of 79 first downs given his blocking. The Titans have been an excellent red zone offense, but the threat of Henry is scarier at times than actually seeing the back get the ball.

All of this makes for a fascinating projection in 2022. Henry’s offensive line is in flux, with Rodger Saffold III replaced by Aaron Brewer or Jamarco Jones at left guard, while 2021 second-rounder Dillon Radunz takes over at right tackle. Field-stretching wideout A.J. Brown has been traded and replaced by exciting rookie Treylon Burks. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill is in what amounts to a contract year, with Malik Willis lurking in the shadows. The Titans aren’t rebuilding, but they’re certainly retooling.

The big question for Mike Vrabel & Co. is how they play Henry’s return. After giving him a league-high 376 carries in 2020, he was on pace for 465 carries last season before the foot injury. The primary backup on the roster is rookie fourth-rounder Hassan Haskins. There is always the possibility Henry could get back to his prior workload without skipping a beat, but are the Titans prepared to take that risk and again lose him for months?

They will be more realistic in using Henry this season, which should help the sixth-year back keep his legs fresh. It’s also an unfortunate reality that he is likely to miss at least a couple of games as the campaign goes on. There is a wide range of outcomes, but this could be a reasonable projection …

Projection for 2022: 260 carries for 1,170 yards and 11 TDs; 18 receptions (28 targets) for 140 yards and 1 TD

2021 stats: 240 carries for 898 yards and 4 TDs; 47 catches (67 targets) for 439 yards and 5 TDs

McCaffrey and Henry had conspicuous drop-offs by virtue of not being available. Kamara missed four games with an MCL sprain, but his decline was more subtle because it was offset by an increased rushing workload. If we repeat the same chart we had for Henry, Kamara’s dip from the 2019 and 2020 campaigns to 2021 stands out:

As the focal point of the Saints’ offense after Drew Brees retired and Michael Thomas missed the entire season, Kamara cratered. He was the NFL’s worst back by cumulative RYOE (minus-133) and FDOE (minus-14), one year after being among the league leaders in both categories. After posting a positive expected points added (EPA) per play as a rusher in 2020, he was the worst back in the league by cumulative rushing EPA (minus-43.0). The only runners with at least 100 carries who ranked worse on an EPA-per-carry basis were Myles Gaskin and Alexander Mattison. We’ll get to his receiving in a minute, but as a runner, Kamara was a huge negative.

There are a few arguments why the numbers wouldn’t accurately depict his performance, and running through them should inform how we feel about his chances of getting back on track:

1. Teams were focused on Kamara without the threat of a viable passing game. There’s certainly some truth to this, although it’s not quite as strong of an argument as one might think. The Saints were at their relative best throwing the football while Jameis Winston was in the lineup, which came from Weeks 1 to 7. After Winston tore his left ACL, the Saints were forced to turn to Trevor Siemian, Ian Book and Taysom Hill at quarterback.

The problem is that Kamara was already struggling mightily while Winston was in the lineup and actually got better after returning from his own knee injury, when the lesser quarterbacks were under center. He was averaging minus-0.7 RYOE and had already posted minus-11 FDOE across the first eight weeks. From that point forward, he wasn’t great, but he averaged minus-0.4 RYOE per carry and was only three first downs below expectations on 107 additional carries.

You can’t only play this argument one way. If you’re going to argue Kamara was saddled with middling-to-bad quarterback play and dismal wideouts for most of the season, you also need to acknowledge that he had been blessed with a Hall of Fame quarterback and much better wide receivers for the vast majority of his first four years in the league.

The Saints routinely ranked among the most efficient rushing attacks during the Brees era, despite playing what would typically be considered a pass-first style. It’s fair to suggest backs such as Kamara, Mark Ingram and Chris Ivory had an easier time by virtue of playing with Brees, who ripped apart teams over the middle of the field with slants, digs and throws up the seam. Linebackers and safeties were stuck in a bind, which created opportunities for chunk yardage. Teams came out with lighter defensive groupings than we typically see against other offenses.

In 2020, for example, Kamara ran into boxes with fewer than seven defenders almost 51% of the time. The league average for backs with 150 carries or more was 38.6%; the only players who saw light boxes more frequently were Miles Sanders, Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Kenyan Drake and Devin Singletary. The latter three played in three of the league’s most pass-happy attacks. In 2021, Kamara faced light boxes just under 29% of the time, which was the eighth-lowest rate for backs with 150-plus carry workloads.

We probably should have seen this coming, if only because Kamara’s numbers were drastically different in 2019 and 2020 when Brees was sidelined by injuries. When Brees was on the field, Kamara carried the ball 229 times for 1,192 yards (5.2 yards per carry) and scored 16 rushing touchdowns. He produced 151 RYOE and five FDOE in the games in which Brees was inactive. Without Brees, Kamara’s 129 carries produced just 537 yards (4.2 YPC) and five scores. The back’s advanced metrics fell off; he had minus-45 RYOE and was three first downs below expectation.

Two things can be true at the same time. Yes, Kamara had a more difficult time than other backs in 2021. He also had it easier in the seasons beforehand. This season might land somewhere in the middle; the Saints should be much better at wide receiver with Thomas returning and both Jarvis Landry and Chris Olave joining the roster, but Sean Payton’s retirement cost New Orleans one of the league’s best playcallers. Brees hinted at a return to the field earlier this month, but unless we see a second Hall of Fame quarterback unretire this offseason, Kamara is not going to be blessed with a superstar passer in 2022.

2. Kamara was hindered by an injury-hit offensive line. There’s more behind this argument. In 2020, his offensive line wasn’t immaculate, but the five starting linemen in front of him were present more often than not. Terron Armstead, Andrus Peat, Erik McCoy, Cesar Ruiz and Ryan Ramczyk combined to play in 74 of 80 possible games. Sixth lineman Nick Easton, who would have been a starter for most teams, played in 12 games. With three first-round picks and a star left tackle in Armstead, the Saints invested heavily up front and were rewarded for their efforts.

In 2021, things didn’t go quite as well. Easton was a cap casualty. Of the five starting linemen, the only one to start all 17 games was Ruiz. Armstead, Peat, McCoy and Ramczyk combined to miss 31 games. Swing lineman James Hurst and undrafted rookie Calvin Throckmorton were near-weekly starters. Replacement-level linemen such as Jordan Mills, Caleb Benenoch and James Carpenter were forced into spot starts.

Kamara’s blocking understandably suffered. In 2020, his average run was expected to gain 4.4 yards by Next Gen’s model. Last year, his typical run was expected to pick up 4.2 yards. That’s not a dramatic difference, but taking two-tenths of a yard off the top of every rushing attempt adds up over the course of a season.

Things should be better here in 2022, albeit not to the heights of 2020. The four returning linemen should be healthier, allowing the Saints to use Hurst and Throckmorton as reserves. Armstead left for the Dolphins in free agency and was replaced in the lineup by another first-round pick in Northern Iowa’s Trevor Penning. The organization has done a great job of developing linemen under new run game coordinator Dan Roushar, and new offensive line coach Doug Marrone is overqualified for his position. Kamara should get more help up front this season.

3. Kamara doesn’t need to be a great runner because of what he offers as a receiver. Unlike Henry, Kamara generates significant value in the passing game. As I mentioned in the McCaffrey section, Kamara is targeted at one of the highest rates of any player. If you’ve watched any Saints game over the past five seasons, you’ve probably seen him torturing linebackers on option routes.

And unlike Kamara the runner, Kamara the receiver didn’t really drop off much in 2021. In 2019 and 2020, he was targeted on a whopping 31.3% of his routes and averaged 2.0 yards per route run. That’s excellent volume and stellar efficiency for a running back. Each Kamara target generated 6.3 yards for the Saints’ offense.

Last year, even without Brees, his numbers were virtually identical. He was targeted on 30.1% of his routes and generated 1.9 yards per route run and 6.2 yards per target. He surprisingly didn’t run as many routes as he had in prior years, as he dropped from 22.6 routes per game to 18.5, but he kept up his efficiency despite the quarterback woes.

Will Kamara be able to keep that up in 2022? It’s tough to see him maintaining that sort of market share with Landry, Olave and Thomas entering the mix for targets. While offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael has been part of the brain trust in New Orleans for the entirety of the Payton era, it’s tough to imagine the playcalling going as smoothly in 2022 as it has in years past.

All of that yields a totally different sort of season for Kamara. After jumping from 12.5 carries per game in 2020 to 18.5 last season, the Saints could take some of the rushing workload off his shoulders. Given the additions at wide receiver, his receiving share could go down, as well. I think he’ll add efficiency as a runner, though, and his massive touchdown regression past the mean should bounce back. After scoring a touchdown once every 11.7 carries in 2020, he scored once every 60 rushes last season.

Projection for 2022: 202 carries for 865 yards and 7 TDs; 52 catches (66 targets) for 455 yards and 4 TDs

2021 stats: 237 carries for 1,002 yards and 10 TDs; 47 catches (65 targets) for 287 yards and 2 TDs

After Elliott’s rookie season in 2016, when he posted 1,631 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns, I suggested he had probably already posted his best NFL season. There’s still time to go — and I certainly didn’t get everything right in that article — but it would now be a surprise if he came close to those rushing numbers in a single season. I bring that article up to point out just how dramatically the context around Elliott has shifted over the past six seasons.

To start, the Cowboys simply don’t run the ball as often as they did when he arrived. On early downs in neutral game scripts, they were once one of the league’s most run-happy teams. As those numbers have gradually risen, they have placed more faith in Dak Prescott, with the Cowboys officially hitting the top 10 in pass rate last season:

You might argue the Cowboys have leaned more on the pass because Elliott has been less efficient as a runner. This would appear to be true. We have four years of RYOE data, and he has declined in each of those years. He posted 0.5 RYOE per carry in 2018, when he led the league in carries, touches and rushing yards. That mark fell to 0.4 in 2019, 0.1 in 2020 and dropped below the average mark to minus-0.1 in 2021. His yards-per-carry marks have bounced around, but the advanced metrics hint at a more worrisome trend.

To be fair, part of Elliott’s decline also involves a declining Cowboys offensive line. He inherited what might have been the league’s best line as a rookie, with Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick and Zack Martin all making it to the Pro Bowl. With each of those players 26 or younger and the Cowboys also developing La’el Collins at the same time, it looked like Elliott might run behind a dominant line for years to come.

By 2020, he was stuck without any of his help. Frederick had retired. Smith and Collins combined to play just two games in 2020, while Martin missed six games. With Prescott sidelined by an ankle injury, defenses had no trouble closing in on Elliott. His average carry that season was expected to generate just 3.9 yards per rush by Next Gen’s model.

Things were better last season. Smith and Martin returned, although Smith missed six games. Collins was suspended to begin the season and then lost his job to Terence Steele; Collins has since been cut and signed with the Bengals. Smith isn’t the tackle he once was, but Elliott generally had better blocking, as his average rush was expected to produce 4.4 yards. His numbers improved slightly in the process, jumping from just over 4 yards per rush to 4.2.

The problem with blaming the context around Elliott, though, is that there’s another back who shouldered a meaningful workload in Dallas a season ago. Tony Pollard carried the ball 130 times to Elliott’s 237. Next Gen’s model suggests Pollard was placed in beneficial situations, as his average rush was expected to generate 4.8 yards per carry, a figure topped only by Miles Sanders and Darrell Henderson Jr. Even given those higher expectations in terms of where and when he carried the ball, Pollard simply blew Elliott’s performance out of the water:

Pollard has been more explosive than Elliott over his first three seasons in the league, but in 2019 and 2020, Elliott was a more reliable option. Elliott’s success rate and FDOE marks topped those of Pollard. Pollard’s yards per carry were better than his backfield mate’s, but you could have made a case for Elliott remaining as the primary runner. There are no arguments to be made after last season.

Elliott has been an underrated receiver for most of his career, but again, Pollard tops him here. Pollard was targeted on 27.6% of his routes to Elliott’s 17.3%. Pollard also was targeted at a higher rate in 2019 and 2020. In each season, Pollard also gained more yards per route run than Elliott, although the gap was more significant last season, when Pollard gained 2.1 yards per route run to Elliott’s 0.8 mark.

Based on how they played in 2021, Pollard should be moved into the lead role. Will the Cowboys actually make that change? I’m skeptical. For one, the organization is paying Elliott like he’s a superstar. While it would surely have cut him this offseason if it had been financially feasible, Dallas is on the hook to pay him $12.4 million in 2022. It can move on from his deal and save nearly $5 million in cap space in 2023, and the decision to not restructure his contract this offseason hints at that likelihood next spring.

If there’s one place Elliott excels, it’s in protecting that pass-happy offense and its quarterback. He is one of the best blocking backs in football, combining prototypical size for a back with the bravery a tailback needs to hold up. Weirdly, given how often the Cowboys throw on first down these days, it might make more sense for him to be the primary back on first down before ceding way to Pollard on second and third down.

Unless Pollard gets injured, we should see the Cowboys move toward more of a 50-50 split between the two in 2022. Elliott had just under 78% of the touches in 2019, a rate that dropped below 70% in 2020 before coming in at just over 62% this past season. An even split should make the Cowboys better and might even increase Elliott’s efficiency, although the days of him competing for rushing titles appear to be over.

Projection for 2022: 180 carries for 802 yards and 8 TDs; 39 catches (58 targets) for 253 yards and 1 TD

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