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Road To #1 Running Back - AFC West

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 West and see who could be that next elite fantasy ballcarrier.

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Running Backs - AFC West

Spencer Ware, KC

Spencer Ware had a fantastic 2016 season - through 14 games, the running back who was originally drafted by the Seattle Seahawks had 921 rushing yards on 214 attempts to go along with 447 receiving yards on 33 grabs. With five touchdowns on the year to help his total fantasy points, Ware was a popular candidate to repeat his 2016 campaign at the start of 2017 following the departure of veteran running back Jamaal Charles. However, Ware tore his PCL in preseason, paving the way for rookie running back Kareem Hunt to dominate the backfield touches for the majority of the season and finish the year as the league's leading rusher. Now that Ware is back and healthy, he will be fighting with Hunt for touches in what figures to be an explosive offense all-around. If something were to happen to Hunt, we may well see Ware restore himself as the backfield leader, paving the way for an RB1 campaign once again. This makes Ware well worth the 14th round pick fantasy owners will currently have to spend on one of the league's top handcuffs.

Justin Jackson, SD

After four seasons as Northwestern's workhorse ballcarrier, Justin Jackson was selected in the 7th round by the Los Angeles Chargers. Although he is a little undersized, the former college captain was surely surprised to see his name so far down the list of draft picks. However, now that he is in the league, we can expect Jackson to demonstrate some of his versatile three-down skillset as a complimentary piece to workhorse back Melvin Gordon. Although it would take some extraordinary circumstances for Jackson to find himself as the back with all of the carries for his team, fantasy owners would be wise not to sleep on the college standout as he can provide considerable value as a scat-back in PPR formats. Nevertheless, the chances of Jackson usurping Gordon as the team's leading rusher are slim to none, making his pathway to fantasy relevance and RB1 status difficult to envision for the 2018 season.

Marshawn Lynch, OAK

Beast Mode came out of retirement at the end of 2016 to join his hometown team, the Oakland Raiders. In 2017, Lynch received 207 carries in 15 games and contributed 891 yards on the ground as well as 151 receiving yards. With seven rushing touchdowns to boot, Lynch was a solid if  unspectacular RB2 who could blow up one week but disappoint the next. With the Raiders hoping to bounce back from their 2017 season and new head coach Jon Gruden's commitment to play old school football, Lynch may receive the lion's share of the team's carries in 2018. This would make him a very enticing fantasy option considering his skillset and ability to perform when it matters the most. Currently, Lynch is being drafted in the 7th round of fantasy drafts. Lynch's potential workload and talent make him an excellent value pick at the position. It is not often that fantasy owners can get a player who runs behind a dominant offensive line and who has produced RB1 numbers in the past. Therefore, Marshawn Lynch - although he is getting up there in age - should be considered a solid depth running back for fantasy owners who can once again achieve top-tier numbers if he is able to stay healthy and productive for his beloved Raiders.

Royce Freeman, DEN

A highly touted recruit coming out of high school, Royce Freeman dominated in college as Oregon's workhorse back, demonstrating an impressive three-down skillset and punishing defenses en route to becoming one of the best college running backs in recent years. These impressive performances led to Freeman being selected by the Denver Broncos in the 3rd round of the 2018 NFL Draft. With the Broncos having a lackluster rushing game last year (although C.J. Anderson was a bit underrated in his 2017 performances), Freeman has come in to fill the void in the team's backfield. With Anderson shipped off to the Panthers and Devontae Booker struggling every chance that he gets at a meaningful NFL workload, this may be Freeman's backfield before too long. Freeman has shown that he can produce at a high level, but the NFL is a completely different beast. If Freeman is able to impress enough to become the team's top running back with the majority of their rushing attempts, then fantasy owners will consider his 5th round asking price a bargain as he could produce RB1 numbers in an offense looking to rebound. However, there is inherent risk in picking an unproven talent at the NFL level, meaning that fantasy owners should consider Freeman's downside as well as his upside when deciding whether or not they should select the former Oregon star. Nevertheless, Royce Freeman is someone who could become the next great NFL running back if he is given the chance to perform and the team commits to giving him the majority of the touches out of the backfield.


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