RB Index, Week 16: Analyzing Ezekiel Elliott and Derrick Henry’s Hall of Fame candidacy

Published: Dec 23, 2022 at 03:30 PM

Week 16 could usher in a shakeup to the NFL’s all-time leaderboard for career rushing yards, with yours truly potentially getting leapfrogged by not just one running back, but two.

Dallas’ Ezekiel Elliott needs just 8 yards against Philadelphia to surpass my career mark of 8,167, while Tennessee’s Derrick Henry must rack up 68 against Houston, with both games taking place on Saturday. Congratulations will be in order if — more like when — the pair of seventh-year backs leave me in their dust.

My own career — which included three Pro Bowl nods, a first-team All-Pro selection and a rushing title — merited a modern-era nomination for the Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2020. Hopefully, Elliott and Henry enjoy better health in the latter years of their respective careers and make it even further in the process.

Seventeen running backs earned a modern-era nomination for the Class of 2023, but just two were included among the 28 semifinalists: my old teammate Fred Taylor and the great Ricky Watters. We’ll see if either of them make it to the next step in January, when the 15 finalists will be announced.

Hall of Fame voters all have their own checklists for determining who deserves a bronze bust in Canton. If I were in the room, I’d look at these five areas for the running back position:

  1. Was the running back the best player at his position for a multi-year span?
  2. Did he rush for 2,000 yards in a season?
  3. Did he reach 10,000 rushing yards in his career?
  4. Did he win (or seriously compete for) a league MVP award?
  5. Did the player and his team enjoy postseason success?

I used that criteria to asses Henry’s career two years ago amid his 2,000-yard campaign, coming to the conclusion that he was on his way to earning a gold jacket, but not quite there. With Henry and Elliott nearing the end of their seventh regular season — and about to pass this RB Index author in career rushing yards — it feels like a good time to assess where their respective HOF résumés stand right now.

Derrick Henry

Tennessee Titans · Year 7

There’s no disputing “King Henry” has been the standard at the running back position over the last five seasons. Since 2018, Henry leads the league in carries (1,411), rushing yards (6,866) and rushing touchdowns (67). The next-closest players in those three categories: Elliott with 1,274 carries, Nick Chubb with 6,068 rush yards and Chubb again with 48 rush TDs. And this is despite Henry missing nine games in 2021. This season, he’s rushed for 1,303 yards and 12 TDs on a league-leading 296 totes. 

The 6-foot-3, 247-pounder is having another great campaign in Year 7, but his most impressive stretch to date came in back-to-back seasons, when he led the league in all major rushing categories. 

  • 2019 in 15 games: 303 carries, 1,540 rush yards, 16 TDs
  • 2020 in 16 games: 378 carries, 2,027 rush yards, 17 TDs

Henry is one of just eight players in NFL history with 2,000 rushing yards in a single campaign, a performance that earned him the 2020 Offensive Player of the Year award. In a world where the MVP award is made for quarterbacks — the last non-QB to win it was RB Adrian Peterson in 2012 — the OPOY honor might be as good as gets for running backs from here on out. I mean, Henry recorded the fifth-most rushing yards in NFL history for an 11-5 division winner and didn’t earn a single MVP vote, which is absolutely bonkers. 

Henry should have no problem checking the box for 10,000 career rushing yards. Averaging 109.6 rush yards per game over the last four seasons, and with three games remaining in the 2022 campaign, he could realistically surpass the mark by the end of next season if he stays healthy. I must address the fact that running backs don’t historically have a long shelf life. I retired just before my 30th birthday. But I think Henry, who will turn 29 years old just days before Tennessee’s regular-season finale, still has a lot of tread on his tires.

The three-time Pro Bowler has played an instrumental role in the Titans’ recent success. Tennessee has made four postseason appearances, including three straight, and is still squarely in the mix to get back to the playoffs this season. His biggest postseason performance came in the 2019 playoffs, when the sixth-seeded Titans rode Henry to the AFC title game, with the back piling up 446 yards and two touchdowns — as well as a passing TD! — over three postseason games.

Henry was robbed of another spectacular campaign in 2021, when his season was cut short by a foot injury after eight games. At that point, he had already rushed for 937 yards and 10 touchdowns while helping the Titans to a 6-2 record. Tennessee went on to claim the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs, with Henry rejoining the team in the Divisional Round. However, he wasn’t himself — having not played a snap in more than two months — and was a non-factor. Injuries happen, but man, that was unfortunate.

VERDICT: To me, Henry has done enough to earn a gold jacket. He’s been The Guy at the position for half a decade, with the production and awards to prove it. Another 2,000-yard campaign (or close to it) and/or some postseason moments would only be icing on the cake.

Ezekiel Elliott

Elliott’s HOF candidacy is a bit more of a question mark, though his career started with a bang. He won the NFL rushing title as a rookie — leading the league in carries (322) and yards (1,631) while scoring 16 total touchdowns — and finished second in 2016 Offensive Rookie of the Year voting to teammate Dak Prescott. That performance also earned Zeke six MVP votes and 5.5 Offensive Player of the Year votes.

He was limited to 10 games in Year 2 due to a suspension for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy, but he still averaged a league-best 98.3 rushing yards per game. In 2018, he won his second rushing title with 1,434 ground yards. From 2016 through ’18, Zeke led the league in carries (868) and rushing yards (4,048), while tying for second in rushing scores (28).

Zeke met the expectation of his draft pedigree (fourth overall) early in his career, but a heavy workload has clearly taken its toll. He’s averaging 68.5 rush yards per game over the last four seasons, a dramatic drop-off from his first three seasons, when he led the league every year in that category.

In Year 7, the 27-year-old has shared the workload much more with Tony Pollard, at times becoming more of a short-yardage and goal-line specialist. It’s the best approach for Dallas to succeed; it just isn’t necessarily the best for Zeke’s Hall case. That said, Elliott’s ability to protect the passer often goes unnoticed, but it shouldn’t. He’s one of the best RBs in this crucial aspect of the game — and has been throughout his career. 

Dallas has made three postseason appearances since Zeke was drafted — with difficult exits each time. The top-seeded Cowboys were knocked off by the Packers in a Divisional Round thriller, ending their magical 2016 campaign, with Elliott having 125 yards on 22 totes in the loss. Two seasons later, the ‘Boys lost in the Divisional Round to the Rams, who went on to represent the NFC in Super Bowl LIII. Finally, last season, Dallas lost to San Francisco in a truly wild wild-card game finish.

VERDICT: Zeke hasn’t done enough. At this point in his career, he needs a string of big postseason moments (SEE: Terrell Davis’ path) to ensure his spot in Canton. He’ll have a chance to do just that next month, with the Cowboys securing a postseason berth last week.

Top 15 running backs

Former NFL rushing leader and NFL Network analyst Maurice Jones-Drew will survey all running backs and rank his top 15 each week of the 2022 season. His rankings are based on this season’s efforts alone. Here is MJD’s list heading into Week 16.

Josh Jacobs

Las Vegas Raiders · Year 4

2022 stats: 14 games | 291 att | 1,495 rush yds | 5.1 ypc | 11 rush TD | 46 rec | 363 rec yds | 0 rec TD | 1 fumble lost

Jacobs grinded out 93 yards on 22 totes in the Raiders’ unbelievable Week 15 win against the Patriots. Adding 17 receiving yards, Jacobs has now recorded at least 100 scrimmage yards in six straight contests. With the Raiders still in the playoff hunt, Jacobs could be the difference-maker against the Steelers’ seventh-ranked run defense on Saturday night, as he has averaged 103 rush yards per game in four games this season against teams ranked in the top 10 in run defense. 

Christian McCaffrey

San Francisco 49ers · Year 6

2022 stats: 14 games | 200 att | 927 rush yds | 4.6 ypc | 6 rush TD | 74 rec | 623 rec yds | 4 rec TD | 0 fumbles lost

With Mr. Irrelevant (Brock Purdy) leading the charge at quarterback for the 49ers, McCaffrey has seen an increased workload with a season-high 32 touches in last week’s win over Seattle. He’s rushed for 100 yards in each of the last two games and scored in three straight games. Week 16 could be a challenge, though, with the 49ers hosting a stout Commanders defense.

Derrick Henry

Tennessee Titans · Year 7

2022 stats: 14 games | 296 att | 1,303 rush yds | 4.4 ypc | 12 rush TD | 30 rec | 379 rec yds | 0 rec TD | 2 fumbles lost

With Ryan Tannehill playing through an ankle injury, Henry did all he could against the Chargers, rushing 21 times for 104 yards and a 4-yard score off a direct snap. It just wasn’t quite enough to end Tennessee’s skid. The performance marked Henry’s seventh game this season with 100-plus rush yards, most in the NFL. Facing Houston in Week 16, Henry must be licking his chops — his fantasy owners are likely licking theirs, too — as he has rushed for more than 200 yards and multiple touchdowns in each of his last four games against the division rival.

Austin Ekeler

Los Angeles Chargers · Year 6

2022 stats: 14 games | 165 att | 692 rush yds | 4.2 ypc | 9 rush TD | 95 rec | 635 rec yds | 5 rec TD | 2 fumbles lost

The Titans’ defense did a nice job containing Ekeler, who had 70 yards on 14 touches last week, but the scoring machine did notch his 14th TD of the season on a 3-yard run in the fourth quarter. Ekeler gets an easier matchup this week against a Colts defense that allowed the largest comeback in NFL history a week ago.

Nick Chubb

Cleveland Browns · Year 5

2022 stats: 14 games | 252 att | 1,252 rush yds | 5.0 ypc | 12 rush TD | 20 rec | 172 rec yds | 0 rec TD | 1 fumble lost

Chubb paced the Browns with 99 of the team’s 143 rush yards in last week’s defensive battle against the Ravens. He can help Cleveland stay in the playoff hunt with another big outing Saturday against the Saints’ 23rd-ranked run defense.

Tony Pollard

2022 stats: 14 games | 177 att | 969 rush yds | 5.5 ypc | 9 rush TD | 33 rec | 310 rec yds | 3 rec TD | 0 fumbles lost

Surpassing 106 scrimmage yards on 23 touches in the Cowboys’ Week 15 loss, Pollard has rushed for at least 75 yards in eight of the last 12 games. He is primed to have another solid outing in Saturday’s showdown with the NFC East-leading Eagles, whose defense is allowing more than 120 yards on the ground per game.

Dalvin Cook

Minnesota Vikings · Year 6

2022 stats: 14 games | 230 att | 1,045 rush yds | 4.5 ypc | 8 rush TD | 33 rec | 265 rec yds | 2 rec TD | 3 fumbles lost

In a the greatest comeback in NFL history, Cook’s 64-yard catch-and-run touchdown that helped send the contest to overtime might have been the play of the game. It certainly was for Cook, as it was the longest reception of his career. He finished the day with a career-high 95 receiving yards and another 95 yards on the ground. And with that one monumental TD, he’s now scored in eight of the Vikings’ last 10 games.

Miles Sanders

Philadelphia Eagles · Year 4

2022 stats: 14 games | 215 att | 1,110 rush yds | 5.2 ypc | 11 rush TD | 19 rec | 72 rec yds | 0 rec TD | 1 fumble lost

Sanders has to be champing at the bit for Saturday’s massive showdown with the rival Cowboys, especially coming off a lackluster performance in Week 15’s narrow win at Chicago. He managed just 42 yards on 11 carries and lost 13 yards on his lone reception before fumbling the ball away to the Bears on the play. He’s set up to bounce back in Week 16, with Jalen Hurts out and the Eagles poised to lean on the run game.

Rhamondre Stevenson

New England Patriots · Year 2

2022 stats: 14 games | 183 att | 914 rush yds | 5.0 ypc | 5 rush TD | 60 rec | 381 rec yds | 1 rec TD | 0 fumbles lost

Other than being the player who sparked the batty game-ending play that led to a stunning Patriots loss last week, Stevenson had a great performance. He rushed for a whopping 172 yards — with a go-ahead 34-yard TD romp late in the fourth quarter — on just 19 carries. He’ll have his work cut out for him this week as he faces a much stiffer defense when the Bengals come to Foxborough.

Saquon Barkley

2022 stats: 14 games | 269 att | 1,170 rush yds | 4.4 ypc | 9 rush TD | 47 rec | 294 rec yds | 0 rec TD | 0 fumbles lost

Barkley looked sharp and elusive all night, especially in the fourth quarter, as a key factor in the Giants’ crucial prime-time victory over the Commanders. Watching him go for 120 scrimmage yards (87 rush, 33 receiving) was a very good sign for the Giants, as Barkley was averaging just 38 rush yards per game in the four games prior. 

Aaron Jones

Green Bay Packers · Year 6

2022 stats: 14 games | 181 att | 937 rush yds | 5.2 ypc | 2 rush TD | 52 rec | 364 rec yds | 5 rec TD | 2 fumbles lost

Green Bay received huge performances from both Jones and AJ Dillon in Monday night’s win over the Rams. Jones rushed 17 times for 90 yards and caught four passes for 36 yards, including a 7-yard TD connection with Aaron Rodgers. Jones had more than 12 carries for the first time since Week 10, helping him inch closer to 1,000 rush yards for the season.

Jamaal Williams

2022 stats: 14 games | 217 att | 839 rush yds | 3.9 ypc | 14 rush TD | 9 rec | 57 rec yds | 0 rec TD | 2 fumbles lost

The touchdown machine has appeared more human of late. He’s had two straight pedestrian performances, with just 33 yards on 13 attempts in last week’s win over the Jets. He’ll look to get back on track against a Panthers D allowing 4.4 rush yards per carry this season. 

Ezekiel Elliott

2022 stats: 12 games | 188 att | 774 rush yds | 4.1 ypc | 10 rush TD | 16 rec | 86 rec yds | 0 rec TD | 0 fumbles lost

Notching a 10-yard TD run early in Dallas’ 40-34 loss at Jacksonville, Zeke has scored in seven straight games, the longest active streak in the NFL. He’s clearly the Cowboys’ go-to goal-line back, even with Tony Pollard out-pacing him in touches of late and out-gaining him by 1.4 yards per carry on the season.

Jerick McKinnon

Kansas City Chiefs · Year 9

2022 stats: 14 games | 63 att | 274 rush yds | 4.4 ypc | 1 rush TD | 46 rec | 429 rec yds | 5 rec TD | 1 fumble lost

McKinnon has become a huge playmaker of late in the Chiefs’ top-ranked offense. In the overtime win at Houston, McKinnon scored the walk-off touchdown on a 26-yard scamper, giving him at least one TD in three straight games.

Travis Etienne

Jacksonville Jaguars · Year 2

2022 stats: 14 games | 182 att | 917 rush yds | 5.0 ypc | 4 rush TD | 27 rec | 238 rec yds | 0 rec TD | 3 fumbles lost

Etienne breaks back into my top 15 after a 100-yard performance in the Jags’ stirring comeback win against Dallas. Remember, this ranking is based on RB performances through Week 15, so we’ll take Etienne’s Thursday night outing against the Jets into consideration next week.

The Ground Index presented by FedEx ranks NFL running back performances all season long. Check out the weekly FedEx Air NFL Players of the Week and cast your vote after Sunday Night Football.

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