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Fantasy sports: 2013 Fantasy Football primer -- NFC West running backs

Unless you play in one of *those* leagues that start two quarterbacks (or a league that only requires one starting running back and an absurd number of flex players) then drafting several running backs early and often is the most important thing you can do to help win your fantasy football league.

Fortunately, if you play in a standard re-draft league, the depth at running back seems greater than it has been in years, thanks mainly to the emergence of rookies Doug Martin, Trent Richardson and Alfred Morris a year ago, all of whom should go in the first round of a standard 10- or 12-team league.

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Over the next few days, we'll have a division-by-division breakdown of the running back situations, followed by a cheat sheet of the top players at the position, five potential sleeper picks and five must-have handcuffs.

Today, we will focus on the NFC West.

Arizona Cardinals -

Bruce Arians, after one year as OC and interim head coach in Indianapolis, comes to the desert to rejuvenate the offense that had become stagnant under head coach Ken Whisenhunt. With him, he brought running back Rashard Mendenhall, who he coached for several years as the Pittsburgh Steelers' offensive coordinator.

As a Steelers fan, I was never particularly fond of Arians or Mendenhall. And Mendenhall didn't seem the same last year after tearing his ACL at the end of 2011. But, not everyone is Adrian Peterson and with another year to recover, Mendenhall has a chance to be a major bounce back candidate this year who could help your fantasy team.

Despite the presence of third-year man and perennial sleeper pick Ryan Williams and rookies Stephan Taylor and Andre Ellington, Arians recently told NFL Network

Identifying opportunity is one of the hallmarks of winning fantasy football, so if Arians is telling the truth -- and there's no reason to believe he isn't, he's a big believer in picking a back and running him until the wheels fall off -- then Mendenhall is going to get a lot of opportunities to pick up yardage. That is, assuming the wheels don't fall off.

Mendenhall's price tag is a bit steep, considering how poorly he played last year,

, but his familiarity with Arians' offense means he shouldn't have to take much time to get adjusted that some free agent backs often do. I like Mendenhall as a low-end RB2 or RB3 with the upside of a high-end RB2.

I'm not concerning myself with the other backs on the Cardinals roster. Williams still shows promise, but is a tease with injury concerns. He's probably only worth drafting if you also select Mendenhall and have injury concerns. Otherwise, put him on your watch list. The same goes for rookies Taylor and Ellington. Mendenhall only signed a one-year deal with the cards, so keep your eyes and ears open to see if either of these guys might be ready to make the leap to starter in 2014.

St. Louis

Rams -

For years, the Rams running back situation was as clear as any in the NFL: Steven Jackson, all day every day. Entering 2013, it might be the murkiest in all the league.

The trio of second-year backs Isaiah Pead and Daryl Richardson and rookie Zac Stacy will all compete for touches and it seems likely that none of those three will emerge as a true No. 1 and this will be the ultimate timeshare situation. That's like nails on a chalkboard for a fantasy football owner.

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Richardson will likely get first crack,

, but that means nothing come the start of the season. Richardson, a seventh-rounder last year out of Abilene Christian, showed flashes spelling Jackson, but dropped off in the final month when he didn't get as many touches.

If the Rams run a spread offense as expected, the shifty runner could be a nice fit.

But Pead is a similar runner and the Rams invested more in him than Richardson.

His natural talent may allow him to catch up, although because he's already been suspended for week 1, there's a chance he'll be behind Richardson the entire preseason.

Then there is the matter of Stacy, a 2013 fifth-rounder from Vanderbilt who at the very least could poach goal line carries from either Richardson or Pead because of his stocky build and powerful running style.

, to the point that you could hardly call Stacy a sleeper anymore.

All three of these guys should be drafted when your league picks, and one of the backs may emerge during the preseason, so this warrants keeping an eye on. Essentially, picking one of these guys is like taking a lottery ticket. If one of them ends up the unquestioned starter, you're in the money. Otherwise, you might find yourself discarding it pretty quickly.

Oh, there's also a guy named Terrance Ganaway,

. If you believe what you read here, then Ganaway is a guy to take a flier on if you're in the deepest league ever, or he suddenly starts getting work with the second team in preseason or something.

The only other article I could find on Ganaway?

.

San Francisco

49ers -

Frank Gore is still the man in the Bay Area until further notice. However, that further notice could be by mid-season.

Gore is 30 years old, which by NFL running back standards, basically means he's on the edge of becoming decrepit. Yet, Gore turned in another Pro Bowl season last year and says

.

Gore is one of those players I'd really be happy to land in the middle of the third round, because I think you will be getting a runner who still has RB1 potential at a low-end RB2 price (and assuming you took an RB1 in the first round, which means you probably got a stud WR in the second). Gore still averaged a healthy 4.7 yards per carry a year ago, toting the rock 258 times for the NFC Champions. I wouldn't draft Gore much higher than that, however, because of the age factor.

, but it remains to be seen how effective he will be coming back off an Achilles injury. If you draft Gore, Hunter is the handcuff.

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Regardless of how Hunter is used, the 49ers will likely try to get the ball in hands of the electric LaMichael James a few more times, who has bulked up a bit

, but I think James will be a more valuable player in real life than he will be fantasy-relevant. (Of note, James will get more opportunities to return punts and kicks with Ted Ginn no longer in town. If you draft team defenses in your league, the 49ers will already be a top unit, but this makes them even more enticing in my opinion.)

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention rookie Marcus Lattimore. The former South Carolina Game Cock likely would've been the No. 1 running back selected in the 2013 draft, if not for a gruesome knee injury that derailed his final season in college football. The Niners invested a fourth-rounder in Lattimore and it's clear they have no intentions of playing him this season (

) but he's the heir apparent once Gore's age finally catches up to him. Don't bother in re-draft leagues, but if you're in a keeper league or dynasty league, he's worth stashing.

Seattle Seahawks -

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Like the Vikings and the Buccaneers, this might be the easiest running back breakdown of any team in the league.

, Marshawn Lynch is and will continue to be the man in Seattle. He ran for a career-high 1,590 yards on 315 carries last season.

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Behind him are bruising back-ups Robert Turbin and Christine Michael. From the sound of things,

, but the situation bears monitoring if something were to happen to Lynch so you know who to handcuff. And Lynch should definitely be handcuffed (no pun intended with the DUI arrest and all...).

In keeper and dynasty leagues, both guys are worth a look as they have RB1 talent, they just need the opportunity to shine. That could come as soon as 2014 if Lynch is suspended for any amount of time because of the DUI.

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