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Road to #1 Running Back - AFC North

Each year, elite running backs are a necessity for fantasy football rosters. With guaranteed touches each game, these consensus top-tier running backs are some of the first names off of draft boards and consistently perform well throughout the season.

However, there is also a good amount of unpredictability at the position, with breakout players appearing from out of nowhere year-in and year-out. Whether they dominate for stretches over the year or end up as top-level talents themselves, unproven or underrated running backs represent a very good opportunity for fantasy owners entering drafts due to their lower draft capital and high production premiums.

In this series, we will go through each NFL division and point out one running back on each team in that division that is currently ranked outside of the top-12 at the position who could finish among the league's best when all is said and done. Today, let's look at the AFC North and see who could be that next elite fantasy ballcarrier.

Editor's Note: Our incredible team of writers received 13 award nominations by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association including Baseball Writer of the Year, Football Writers of the Year, Golf Writer of the Year and many more! Be sure to follow their analysis, rankings and advice all year long, and win big with RotoBaller! Read More!


Running Backs - AFC North

James Conner, PIT

After an up-and-down career at Pittsburgh that saw him become one of the better running backs in college football before overcoming a battle with cancer and revitalizing his career, James Conner was selected by the Pittsburgh Steelers to be their backup running back to Le'Veon Bell. Through 14 games in 2017, Conner was only able to record 32 rushing attempts for 144 yards as the team leaned heavily on Bell in both the running and passing game. However, with the recent contract disputes between Bell and the Steelers not subsiding, Conner may have a larger role than previously imagined should the team move away from their All-Star playmaker. Although the path to workhorse status is quite murky for Conner, if he is able to wrestle away a significant portion of the team's backfield carries, the ex-Pitt running back could become a person to watch heading into next year's offseason.

Alex Collins, BAL

Despite practically being left for dead as fodder on the Seahawks and Ravens practice squads, Alex Collins was thrust into the starting role for his team after several injuries and underwhelming displays from the team's running backs. Despite struggling with fumbling early in his career, Collins was able to truly become the team's workhorse and ended up logging 212 carries on the season despite only starting twelve games. Additionally, in his last seven contests, Collins contributed with six rushing touchdowns and became a staple of fantasy lineups regardless of the format. The ex-Seahawks running back finished the year with 973 rushing yards and also added an additional 187 yards through the air (on 23 receptions).

Entering 2018, it is clear that Collins is the team's top rusher and should get the most touches on the team's backfield by quite a large margin. However, with youngster Kenneth Dixon coming back into the mix as a back with a three-down skillset, we may see some competition for Collins given his fumbling issues last year. Nevertheless, Collins was extremely impressive in 2017 and has the backing of the team's coaching staff for 2018. If he performs at the same level, Collins becomes a must-own running back with legitimate RB1 upside that fantasy owners can draft in the 4th round.

Joe Mixon, CIN

Joe Mixon was highly touted coming out of college after a very impressive career at Oklahoma. Despite facing some big personal issues, the Bengals risked a second round pick on Mixon due to his immense talent. Mixon entered the year competing with Giovanni Bernard and Jeremy Hill for touches; however, Hill was phased out early in the year. With the team's offense and offensive line struggling, Mixon was only able to average 3.5 yards per carry on the year and did little to distance himself from teammate Bernard to finish the season. Mixon ended 2017 with 626 yards on 173 carries and four touchdowns as well as 30 receptions for 287 more yards. We know that the Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis does not like playing his rookies, but Mixon seemed to earn the team's trust in the middle of the year with the hiring of offensive coordinator Bill Lazor. Entering 2018, it looks as though Mixon will be the team's top back to start the year, with Bernard spelling him on some third-downs or when he needs a break. Although his ADP is a bit high at the top of the third round, if Cincinnati is able to improve its offensive line play and the play of the offense as a whole, we could see a truly breakout season from Mixon, who is guaranteed to hit RB2 totals due to volume and could reach for RB1 numbers by the end of the season.

Nick Chubb, CLE

Many football analysts were left puzzled when the Cleveland Browns took a running back so early in the 2nd round of the 2018 Draft after they had signed veteran Carlos Hyde to a hefty deal in the offseason and had Duke Johnson as a passing down specialist. Nevertheless, the team did move forward with Nick Chubb as their selection, adding intrigue to an already crowded backfield. Chubb certainly has the high draft capital and ability to take over the team's rushing game (in a move not dissimilar to what the Vikings did last year with Dalvin Cook, Latavius Murray, and Jerick McKinnon) and could end the season as the team's top back. However, Hyde has shown that he is no slouch either and will compete for those carries each week. If Chubb is able to secure the majority of the early down work and steal some looks from Johnson in the passing game, we could be looking at an absolute bargain that fantasy owners can currently draft in the 9th round in their fantasy drafts. That late in the draft, it is worth it to take a punt on an upside pick like Chubb who has the natural talent to be an RB1 if he is given the opportunity.


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