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Road to #1 Running Back - NFC East


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 NFC East and see who could be that next elite fantasy ballcarrier.

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Running Backs - NFC East

Jay Ajayi, PHI

Jay Ajayi has certainly had an up-and-down career since entering the NFL from Boise State. Drafted by the Miami Dolphins, Ajayi was the backup to Lamar Miller in his rookie season. However, once the veteran left for the Texans, Ajayi had to compete with ex-Texan Arian Foster for the starting job and initially looked to be losing that battle after being left off the team as a healthy scratch for their Week 1 game in 2016. However, with Foster's mid-season retirement, Ajayi was able to break out in a big way. Three 200+ yard games contributed to a 1,272-yard season where Ajayi found paydirt eight times as well. Going into 2017, there were lofty expectations for the running back who is originally from England. Many expected him to continue to be an elite runner as he had been in 2016 - however, his fans were surely disappointed after he was only able to muster 465 yards through the first seven games of the season and also failed to find the end zone.

After those first seven games, Ajayi was traded to the Eagles. Although he was not the only impressive running back on the roster, he still earned 400 rushing yards in seven games and scored his only touchdown of the 2017 season. Ajayi was a big player in the team's playoff games as well, helping them reach and win the Super Bowl. Now, entering the 2018 season, Ajayi is expected to be the lead back in Philly after having an offseason to familiarize himself with the team. Despite facing competition from the likes of Corey Clement and Darren Sproles, it should be Ajayi's backfield. With his rushing upside that fantasy owners have seen in the past, Ajayi has legitimate RB1 upside if he is able to become the workhorse back for the Eagles. This makes the Eagles running back a good value selection in the 4th round of fantasy drafts.

Rod Smith, DAL

It's no secret that the Cowboys backfield is almost exclusively Ezekiel Elliott's. However, we saw last year what happened when Elliott finally served his suspension - the Cowboys looked to their next line of running backs and continued to feed them. With veteran Alfred Morris now gone, it looks as if Rod Smith will be the main beneficiary should Elliott go down through injury or a further suspension. Smith impressed in his limited opportunities in 2017, logging 209 rushing yards and three rushing touchdowns along with 158 receiving yards and another score through the air. It's clear that Smith has some decent rushing ability, making him a valuable handcuff option that fantasy owners can get for next to nothing in drafts this year.

Derrius Guice, WAS

In an especially deep class at the running back position, Derrius Guice was considered by many to be one of the top prospects at the position. After taking over the LSU backfield from Jaguars running back Leonard Fournette, Guice was incredibly impressive, warranting a high draft pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. However, due to character concerns over his immaturity, Guice was not selected until the 59th pick (2nd round) by the Washington Redskins. Although nobody can deny his talent, his situation is less than ideal. With passing down specialist Chris Thompson sure to take some work in both the rushing and receiving departments and second-year pro Samaje Perine a threat to siphon off goal-line carries, Guice will have to make the most of his opportunities in order to become a fantasy superstar. While there is no doubt over his talent, Guice will need to show it on the field consistently in order to win over the backfield and become a bonafide workhorse running back this season. If he can do that, then an RB1 finish is definitely not out of the question for the youngster from Louisiana. With his draft value in fantasy drafts hovering around the back end of the 3rd round, fantasy owners will have to be comfortable with the risk that Guice might be playing in a committee in 2018 (similar to Joe Mixon from the Bengals) and hope that he can live up to his high draft price.

Jonathan Stewart, NYG

After spending the last 10 seasons with the Carolina Panthers, Jonathan Stewart finally left the team and signed with the New York Giants. It was expected that he would be the team's primary ballcarrier until the Giants drafted Saquon Barkley with the second overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. Now, Stewart will likely be nothing more than a change-of-pace back who comes in on short-yardage situations or when Barkley needs a breather. Nevertheless, if something were to happen to Barkley, Stewart becomes a solid fantasy option who should be playing on a decent offense and who has the red zone rushing upside due to his size. Although fantasy owners should not draft Stewart as more than a handcuff, he could still be worth a look if something unfortunate were to happen to his rookie teammate.

 

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