From left, Mark Ingram, Joe Mixon and Jerick McKinnon

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Fantasy Football: Running Backs Who Can Outperform Preseason Ranking

Matt Citak
August 14, 2018 - 4:30 pm
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With the NFL preseason officially underway, what better time to begin preparing for the upcoming fantasy football season?

Over the next month leading up to Week 1, we will be previewing the 2018 season and helping you prepare for your fantasy drafts.

We already took a look at some quarterbacks. Now we take on the running backs. In this piece, we will break down several running back options that are in a great position to outperform their preseason rankings.

And away we go ... 

(NOTE: For consistency throughout the next month, we will be using ESPN’s fantasy rankings)

Jerick McKinnon, San Francisco 49ers

McKinnon flashed his potential throughout his four years in Minnesota despite the fact that he never served as a true bell-cow back.

Appearing in all 16 games last season, McKinnon carried the ball just 150 times for 570 yards and three touchdowns. While his 3.8 yards per carry was hardly impressive, it was the young back’s performance in the passing game that made him such a valuable piece in the Vikings’ offense. McKinnon added 51 receptions for 421 yards and two touchdowns to his season stats, averaging 8.3 yards per reception.

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After Dalvin Cook tore his ACL last season, the Vikings split running back duties between McKinnon and Latavius Murray, with Murray playing more of a role in the running game. But after signing a four-year, $36.9 million deal with San Francisco over the offseason, McKinnon, 26, looks primed for a larger role in the 49ers’ improving offense. Why else would coach Kyle Shanahan and San Francisco make him one of the highest-paid backs in the league?

As long as his touches match the contract he was handed at the start of free agency, McKinnon could easily outperform his RB14 preseason ranking, especially considering Shanahan’s love of getting his running backs involved in the passing attack.

Joe Mixon, Cincinnati Bengals

Mixon’s rookie campaign did not go as well as the Bengals would have hoped.

In his first NFL season, Mixon rushed for 626 yards on 178 carries, good for just 3.5 yards per carry, with four touchdowns. He did add some value in the passing game, catching 30 passes for 287 receiving yards, but his touchdown total was lower than fantasy owners were expecting from the talented back.

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There’s no doubt that Mixon was a disappointment in 2017. However, part of the reason for his struggles was the extremely poor play of Cincinnati’s offensive line, which performed as one of the worst in the NFL last year. While the line still has some holes, the additions of Cordy Glenn and Billy Price should help Mixon find some running room in 2018.

Mixon was considered one of the top backs in the 2017 NFL draft. With Jeremy Hill no longer in the fold, the Bengals are poised to make Mixon their featured back this season. The second-year runner should be able to outplay his preseason RB15 ranking.

Dion Lewis, Tennessee Titans

Lewis burst onto the fantasy football scene last year in what was the first extended action the veteran back had seen since entering the NFL in 2011.

Appearing in all 16 games for the Patriots, Lewis carried the rock 180 times for 896 yards with six touchdowns. The 5-foot-8 back averaged 5.0 yards per carry, and managed to pick up first downs on 48 of his 180 carries. In addition to his rushing, Lewis continued to succeed in the passing game, racking up 32 receptions for 214 yards and three additional touchdowns.

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Lewis’ play in 2017 earned him a four-year, $19.8 million contract from the Titans this offseason, which should come as a surprise to no one. Lewis led all qualified running backs with a 91.4 percent catch rate (which included zero drops) and finished the season as the only player with 200 or more rushing attempts (including the playoffs) not to have a fumble.

Lewis is joining a Tennessee Titans team that has the No. 5-ranked offensive line (according to Pro Football Focus). The strong O-line, combined with the back’s versatility, makes Lewis an amazing value as the preseason RB24.

Mark Ingram, New Orleans Saints

Simply put, Ingram was fantastic in 2017.

The former first-round pick out of Alabama set career highs in carries (230), rushing yards (1,124), touchdowns (12) and first downs (50) last year, all while sharing carries with Offensive Rookie of the Year Alvin Kamara. Ingram continued to play a large role in New Orleans’ passing game as well, recording 58 receptions for 416 yards.

As we all know, Ingram will be sitting for the first month of the season, as the 28-year-old back is suspended for the first four games of the year. While this obviously hurts Ingram’s value early in the year, it’s important to keep in mind when fantasy championships are actually won -- in December. Ingram is the only running back to finish in the top 12 in points-per-receptions leagues in each of the last three seasons, and he ranked seventh in fantasy points per game last year, even with Kamara present in New Orleans.

Ingram will have fresh legs when he returns from his suspension, which should help him immensely for the final 12 games of the season. Even with Kamara taking on a larger role in the Saints' offense this year, Ingram is a steal as the preseason RB26.

Other Running Backs To Target

Rex Burkhead, New England Patriots: Burkhead put together a respectable 2017 campaign despite appearing in only 10 games. In those contests, the former sixth-round pick carried the ball 64 times for 264 yards (4.1 ypc) and five touchdowns, adding 30 receptions for 254 yards and three receiving TDs. With first-round pick Sony Michel likely to miss all of preseason (and possibly some regular season action as well), Burkhead sits alone atop the Patriots’ running back depth chart. Currently ranked as RB27, it won’t take much for Burkhead, in his second year in New England, to play his way into the top 20 among running backs in fantasy points.

Aaron Jones, Green Bay Packers: Take away a four-week stretch during the first half of the season and Jones really did not do much during his first NFL season. But during weeks 4-7, only five running backs scored more fantasy points than Jones before an injury derailed the rookie’s season. Jones carried the ball 62 times for 346 yards over that span, averaging nearly 5.6 yards per carry, while scoring three touchdowns. His two-game suspension to start the 2018 season certainly hurts, but if he performs like he did during his hot stretch last year, Jones, currently ranked 41st among running backs, could have a breakout season in the Packers’ high-powered offense.

Matt Citak is a Web Producer for WFAN Sports Radio. Follow him on Twitter at @MatthewCitak.