Fantasy Football Running Back Preview: Facing Stacked Boxes
Justin Vreeland opens the Fantasy Football RB previews by looking at the backs that face stacked boxes the most and what that might mean to their value in 2020.
Welcome to the first edition of the RB previews! To kick things off, I am going to take a look at the running backs who faced stacked boxes (8+ man fronts) at the highest rate. Facing stacked boxes can make finding holes very difficult and can lead to a running back struggling. Too many people just look at a running backs yards per carry (YPC) number to determine how good he is, without looking at other factors (stacked box rate, offensive line play, etc.) that go into that players YPC average. Fantasy players should know keep track of this stat and the reasons behind why certain players face stacked boxes at a high rate.
Stacked Box Leaders
49ers backs – Tevin Coleman (40.2-percent), Raheem Mostert (32.1-percent), and Matt Breida (30.1-percent) all faced stacked boxes at a high rate. When you rush as much as the 49ers did (led the league in rush attempts by running backs), and as well as they did (at or near the top of yards per carry, yards per game, and rushing touchdowns) you force the opposing team to stack the box in an attempt to slow down your rushing attack. They were still able to find success despite the stacked box rates, but an improved passing attack could open up more holes for this rushing attack.
Benny Snell (39.8-percent) – Snell, despite being a rookie back, faced stacked boxes at nearly the highest rate in the NFL last season. There were a couple reasons for that. The first reason being that he had just four targets across 13 games, compared to 108 rush attempts so defenses knew when he was in the game it was a run play. The other reason being that the Steelers had arguably the worst quarterback play in the entire league last season and opposing team’s were not afraid of Mason Rudolph or Devlin Hodges at all. The return of Big Ben should lower the rate in which teams stack the box against the Steelers, but Snell will still need to improve in the passing game as he heads into his sophomore season. He is currently slated for a backup role behind James Conner , but Conner is in the last year of his contract and the Steelers don’t sound overly confident in him being their back of the future. Snell has shown some promise and if he can improve in the passing game, he could be a nice fantasy option at some point.
Latavius Murray (35.6-percent) – This was the biggest surprise on this list for me, as I did not expect to see his name here at all. Murray had a nice balance in his stat line with 43 targets and 34 receptions to go along with his 146 rush attempts so he wasn’t at all one-dimensional, yet teams still chose to stack the box when he was on the field at a much higher rate than when Alvin Kamara was (16.4-percent). Now, Murray was used less as a pass-catcher than Kamara, but he had enough balance that this high of a rate is still very surprising. He did see more action when the Saints were leading, so that would lead to a higher rate. I would expect Murray to see a lower rate of stacked boxes than this in 2020, but his rate will once again be much higher than Kamara’s.
Derrick Henry (35.3-percent) – Opposing teams knew a run was coming; they stacked the box to stop it, and still couldn’t stop it. Despite being near the top in stacked box rate, Henry still averaged 5.1 yards per carry (which only trailed Mostert and Gus Edwards among backs with at least 100 carries). Henry was able to beast through stacked boxes last season, but it will be interesting to see if he can do it again this year, as he likely to see them at a high rate once again. If he can improve as a pass-catcher (just 18 receptions and 24 targets last year both of which were new career highs), it could open things up a bit more for the fifth year pro.
Sony Michel (33.6-percent) – No shocker here. Michel is a guy that I have repeatedly tweeted about for his lack of versatility. As great as Bill Belichick is, I find that he does a pretty poor job with this style of running back. Every time Michel is on the field the opposing team knows that a run up the middle is coming. They do not throw him the ball enough to keep defenses honest (20 targets last season). They did this same thing with Mike Gillislee in 2017 and he struggled mightily as well (though it was even worse for Gillislee who had just one target for the entire season and 104 carries, which led to him facing stacked boxes at an insane rate of 51-percent). Opposing teams and coaches are not idiots; they know what is coming when Michel is on the field the same way they knew what was coming when Gillislee was on the field for the Pats, so of course they are going to stack the box to stop the run. All the blame doesn’t fall on Belichick though, as Michel’s 61.3-percent career catch rate is very poor for a running back and it’s an area he needs to improve in quickly or he will find himself out of the league. Michel is someone that I will once again fade in fantasy this season.
Leonard Fournette (31.7-percent) – Fournette continued to face stacked boxes at a high rate though the number has gradually dropped from 48.5-percent his rookie season to 35.3-percent in 2018 to last year’s 31.7-percent mark. Fournette has been a player that I have seen way too many people simply look at his yards per carry average and quickly call him a bust; however, it’s pretty difficult to find much success when you face stacked boxes at the rate he has. Opposing teams know that the Jags want to run the ball and they have dared the Jags to beat them through the air (something the quarterbacks have failed to do). His major progression as a pass-catcher (career high 100 targets and 76 receptions last season) has lowered the rate that teams can stack box. Unsurprisingly, that led to a career high mark of 4.3 yards per carry for Fournette last season. If Gardner Minshew can further improve his play under-center this season, Fournette could see even fewer stacked fronts.