Published On: Fri, Jun 15th, 2018

Fantasy: Who will emerge as 2018's Kareem Hunt or Alvin Kamara?

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Get ready for your season with theScore’s 2018 Fantasy Football Draft Kit.

Kareem Hunt and Alvin Kamara were each drafted well outside the early rounds in fantasy leagues last summer, but each electrifying young runner will hear his name called in the first round this year.

Identifying the next breakout star running back isn’t the only way to capture a fantasy title, but there’s nothing that will propel a fantasy team further toward glory than finding a first-round talent in the later rounds.

We know there will be significant turnover at the position again this year (only half of the previous year’s top 10 running backs typically repeat), and we can predict with confidence that at least one tailback drafted as an RB3 or later will finish as one of the season’s top scorers.

So, which young tailback will emerge from the middle rounds this year to carry his owner to title contention and cement his status as a first-round pick in 2019 fantasy drafts? Let’s examine the candidates:

Sony Michel

The Patriots liked Michel enough to use a first-round pick on him in this spring’s draft, the earliest Bill Belichick has selected a running back in more than a decade. So, even though Michel joins a crowded backfield (Rex Burkhead and James White remain, though Dion Lewis is out of the picture), we can be confident that Michel will inherit a sizeable workload from Day 1.

He’s a perfect prospect for today’s NFL. Really, Michel is an Alvin Kamara clone – down to the fact he was part of a committee in college and didn’t get the chance to show everything he’s capable of as a runner and, more importantly, a receiver. Michel is a premier talent joining a premier offense who won’t cost you a premier fantasy draft pick. What’s not to love?

Ronald Jones

The 38th overall pick in the draft, Jones has the cleanest path to a featured workload of any player on this list simply by virtue of how bad the rest of the Buccaneers’ running back depth chart is. There’s much more to like about Jones than his situation, though. Possessing big-play ability somewhere between Tevin Coleman and Chris Johnson, Jones is a home-run hitter who could see wide running lanes with defenses worried about slowing down Mike Evans, DeSean Jackson, and the Buccaneers’ tight ends.

If Jones can improve his passing game abilities enough for the Buccaneers to treat him as an every-down back, he has a strong chance of vaulting into the first round of 2019 fantasy drafts.

Royce Freeman

John Elway wanted a steady workhorse and he believes he found one in Freeman, who set records at Oregon as a four-year starter. Freeman carried the ball almost 950 times in college, which is far more than most of the NFL’s best running backs handled. Fantasy owners will have to decide if that’s a positive thing (it proves Freeman is durable) or a negative (too much wear on his tires).

With C.J. Anderson no longer in the Mile High City, Freeman only has to beat out Devontae Booker and De’Angelo Henderson to start in the Broncos’ revamped offense. If Freeman can remain efficient while seeing a large volume of carries against pro defenses, he could put up big numbers.

Marlon Mack

The Colts let Frank Gore walk in free agency and invested only fourth- and fifth-round picks to add Nyheim Hines and Jordan Wilkins in the draft, suggesting they want to give second-year runner Mack the chance to lead this backfield. Mack is as explosive as any player on this list, but is too prone to negative runs and managed a paltry 358 yards on 93 carries as a rookie (3.8 yards per carry).

How much of that was due to poor quarterback play and even poorer blocking, and how much was on Mack himself? That’s a tough question to answer, but what we can say with certainty is life will be much easier for Mack with Andrew Luck back under center and first-round mauler Quenton Nelson in front of him. Mack’s floor is lower than others on this list, but he’s still worth a shot at his inexpensive ADP.

Aaron Jones

Fantasy owners saw that Jones was the Packers’ most electric runner before his injury last season, so surely the team’s coaches saw it, right? It doesn’t always work like that in real-life football, but betting on Jones rising above a fellow sophomore Jamaal Williams is the right move for fantasy owners this summer. (Ty Montgomery will likely return to a niche role and won’t compete to start.)

The numbers don’t lie: Jones averaged almost 2 yards per carry more than Williams last season. In the two games Jones topped 13 carries, he rushed for 125 and 131 yards, respectively. Williams had seven games with 13-plus carries and surpassed 82 yards only once. We know this, so the Packers must know this.

Kerryon Johnson

Not viewed as a premier running back prospect entering the NFL draft, the Lions traded up and passed on the far bigger name in Derrius Guice to add Johnson to their roster. That tells us a lot about how they see him. Though Johnson doesn’t necessarily possess the physical tools of elite running backs, his patience and vision are a cut above. Those aren’t traits that can be measured in the pre-draft process.

Though the Lions’ backfield might appear crowded with LeGarrette Blount and Theo Riddick in the fold, those players are best used as specialists and Johnson could potentially seize the biggest piece of the pie behind an ascending offensive line.

Nick Chubb

The Browns committed starter money to Carlos Hyde in free agency, then followed that up by giving Duke Johnson a raise. Like Hunt and Kamara, who benefitted from Spencer Ware getting hurt and Adrian Peterson getting traded, Chubb needs to move up the depth chart for his fantasy value to skyrocket.

Fantasy owners can’t count on Hyde or Johnson getting hurt, but they might not have to. Chubb is an elite physical specimen who might have challenged Leonard Fournette for top billing in last year’s NFL draft had he not shredded his PCL, MCL, and LCL early in the 2015 college season. Chubb stuck around at Georgia for two more seasons, got fully healthy, and now has the challenge of beating out Hyde and Johnson in training camp. Don’t put it past him.

D’Onta Foreman

Foreman will be only 10 months removed from an Achilles injury when the season begins, which is cause for concern, but the Texans indicated they expect him healthy for Week 1 when they passed on drafting a running back. Foreman is a workhorse type whose path to a major role is blocked only by the inconsistent Lamar Miller.

Even if Foreman surpasses Miller on the depth chart, as many expect him to, expectations must be tempered. Though the Texans’ offense is one of the best in the NFL when Deshaun Watson is healthy, that’s due almost entirely to the passing attack. The Texans have one of the worst offensive lines in football.

(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)

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