In a belated celebration of his 30th birthday in January, Derrick Henry did what not a lot of 30-year-old running backs are asked to do anymore. He ran the ball a lot.

Henry’s 19-carry day in the Tennessee Titans’ season-ending win over the Jacksonville Jaguars was notable for its yardage (153, plus a touchdown). It was more remarkable for his mileage. Only one other 30-year-old running back, the Miami Dolphins’ Raheem Mostert, rushed at least 19 times in a game last season. In another year of heavy lifting, Henry not only led the NFL in carries (280) but also finished with the most by any running back in his age-29 season since 2017, according to TruMedia.

At his position, Henry’s age is typically a death knell. The Ravens, in signing the four-time Pro Bowl selection to a two-year, $16 million deal, are betting it is just a number.

“He’s kind of a unicorn, to be honest,” general manager Eric DeCosta said Thursday at Henry’s introductory news conference. “His combination of speed, power, durability — he’s thrived in different systems and done different things. He’s won wherever he’s been, and those kinds of guys are rare. We’ve had some here in Baltimore. They are just different from everybody else, and I think Derrick is a good example of that.”

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From left: Baltimore Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh, newly signed running back Derrick Henry and General Manager Eric DeCosta take questions during a news conference at the Under Armour Performance Center in Owings Mills on Thursday, March 14. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

The 6-foot-3, 247-pound Henry is almost defiantly durable. He had a reported 1,397 carries as a record-breaking high school star, 602 carries in a Heisman Trophy-winning college career at Alabama and 2,030 carries over eight standout regular seasons with the Tennessee Titans. And yet he has missed fewer NFL games (12) while playing the sport’s most vulnerable position than quarterback Lamar Jackson has at the sport’s most protected position (13).

DeCosta knows the risks of his investment. Before Henry, the last older running back to get a multiyear contract with the Ravens was Mark Ingram, who was 29 when he signed in March 2019.

In his debut season, Ingram made good on his three-year, $15 million deal, earning a Pro Bowl nod after a 1,018-yard, 10-touchdown campaign. But Ingram could not make it through the year unscathed. He suffered a late-season calf injury, was limited in the Ravens’ stunning playoff loss to Henry and the Titans, and was cut after a disappointing 2020 season.

In May 2020, during a conference call with season-ticket holders, DeCosta referred to running back, wide receiver and cornerback as “greyhound” positions. Greyhound positions, he said, required quality depth.

“They get injuries,” DeCosta said in 2020. “They take hits. They get soft-tissue injuries, and it’s very, very, very hard to finish the season without those guys being very healthy.”

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Henry, meanwhile, has aged as if he were immune to wear and tear. His highest speed as a ball carrier last season (21.68 mph) was the third highest of his career, according to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats. He broke tackles at a higher rate last year than he did in 2019, when he rushed for 1,540 yards, according to Pro Football Focus.

And, during the season itself, Henry almost becomes football’s Benjamin Button. Over his career, he’s averaged 3.7 yards per carry in September, 4.6 yards in October, 4.9 yards in November and 5.2 yards in December and January. Even over the past two years, after returning from the foot injury that ended his 2021 season, his rushing average from Week 13 to Week 18 (4.5 yards per carry) is higher than it is from Week 1 to Week 12 (4.2), according to TruMedia.

“Really, I think it’s taking care of your body, doing the things you need to do to get your body prepared, year in and year out, week in and week out, and every single day, making sure that you’re at your best, can perform at your best, creating good habits with eating healthy,” Henry said. “As you get into the league, do more research [on] guys who played a long time. Be a sponge to guys at the running back position or anywhere else and see what they’ve done to try and implement that into your life, as well. That’s all I try to do. I feel great. I’m blessed to be able to go into Year 9 and getting this opportunity, so I just want to take advantage of it and do the best that I can.”

Newly signed Baltimore Ravens running back Derrick Henry takes questions from reporters at a news conference at the Under Armour Performance Center in Owings Mills on Thursday, March 14. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

Since he was drafted in 2016, Henry leads the league in rushing yards (9,502) and rushing touchdowns (90) and ranks second in rushing attempts (2,030) and third in rushing yards per game (79.8). Another workhorse season would be almost unprecedented in the modern NFL. The last running back to finish with over 250 carries in a season at age 30 or older was Adrian Peterson, in 2018. The last running back to run for at least 1,200 yards at that age was also Peterson, in 2015.

But, with Jackson a run threat himself, Henry finally has a quarterback who can keep defensive attention divided and his weekly workload lightened. Even if Henry’s age catches up to him, it could be tough to tell. He laughed when he was asked about the notion that his best days are behind him.

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“Tell them to keep watching,” he said.

Jonas Shaffer is a Ravens beat writer for The Baltimore Banner. He previously covered the Ravens for The Baltimore Sun. Shaffer graduated from the University of Maryland and grew up in Silver Spring.

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