Alvin Kamara burst onto the scene last season. He finished as just the second-ever rookie to have 700 rushing yards and 800 receiving yards in a season. In fact, Todd Gurley was the only other player in the league to amass those same totals in 2017, and just three total players accomplished the feat between 2010 and 2016. Even more impressive is that Kamara produced the yardage with just a 44.3% snap share, splitting backfield duties with Mark Ingram. The Saints, however, will begin the 2018 campaign with Kamara as a solo running back while Ingram serves a four-game suspension for PED use. Can Kamara take advantage of his opportunity and turn in an even more impressive encore performance, or will he succumb to a sophomore slump and disappoint fantasy owners?
Working on just the 43rd largest opportunity share among running backs, Alvin Kamara made his touches count last season. Playerprofiler.com rated the New Orleans phenom as the most efficient back in the NFL. Kamara had a mind-boggling +71.3 Production Premium. Kamara also had the highest average yards per carry at 6.07 yards, which was not only top in 2017 but fourth best all time, per Pro Football Focus. At the risk of bombarding you with too many statistics, PFF also ranks Kamara number one in yards after contact per carry and missed tackles forced per touch.
So what do all of these numbers mean? Alvin Kamara was ridiculously efficient and performed at a level that the NFL has essentially never seen before. That’s pretty cool. Unless Kamara is actually Superman (which, I guess, he could be), there’s no way he can keep up this level of production. It is almost guaranteed he will regress, but this reduction in efficiency will be paired with an increase in touches, at least in the first quarter of the season.
The Saints haven’t made an effort to replace the looming Mark-Ingram-sized hole. The only established backups are free-agent signees Shane Vereen and Terrance West. Vereen has not had a season with more than 850 total yards in his seven-year career. West’s 2016 season is his lone semi-productive year since he was drafted in 2014. Sean Payton has said that he will not be giving him Ingram’s carries, yet the team does not have too many other options.
It would make sense that if Kamara’s touches increased, so would his statistical output. I believe the opposite may occur. Although he had 202 total touches last season, that is still a relatively low number when compared to league leaders such as Le’Veon Bell and LeSean McCoy, who had 406 and 346 touches, respectively. Kamara’s 2017 season may be an example of the Law of Small Numbers, a statistical term referring to the danger of extrapolating a conclusion from a small set of data. He was exceptionally efficient but on a handful of touches. Kamara may not be as effective with a full – or even an increased – workload. It is not smart to assume that with a larger workload, his production will follow a similar trajectory.
Lamar Miller is a good example of this phenomenon. Miller always split carries during his time with the Dolphins. After averaging 5.1 yards per carry on 216 carries in 2014, and 4.5 YPC on 194 rushes the following year, the Texans signed him to a large contract in free agency. Miller’s efficiency plummeted to 4.0 YPC when he was given the ball 268 times in 2016 and last year. He recorded a career-low 3.7 YPC on 238 handoffs. While yards per carry is not the best determinant of efficiency, it is a pretty good indicator of how well a running back can handle an increased workload. Even with a similar volume, Kamara has little chance to repeat the all-time performance he delivered in his rookie season.
Sharing The Workload
Dating back to his college career at Tennessee, Alvin Kamara has never been handed a full workload, and for good reason. He is far better suited to an out-of-the-backfield receiving role, akin to how Reggie Bush was used a decade ago in NOLA. In Bush’s rookie year, he was paired with 1,000-yard rusher Deuce McCallister and contributed the majority of his yards through the air. Just twice during his stay in New Orleans did Reggie Bush record more rushing than receiving yards and only once was he the team’s leading rusher. Sean Payton has an affinity for these dynamic backs but has been hesitant to hand them the full reigns to the offense. Kamara has never been the lead back, and Payton doesn’t tend to make players like him his number one.
Where does this leave Kamara and the Saints? There will likely be a heavy rotation among the backfield, with Kamara, Vereen, 2018 sixth-rounder Boston Scott, and perhaps even a veteran such as Terrance West. Out of the group, West seems the most likely to be the “bell cow,” notching 193 carries for 774 yards just two years ago with Baltimore.
Alvin Kamara’s efficiency last year was a direct result of the two-headed rushing attack, as the backs were fresh when they came into the game but the defense was not. Mark Ingram also had one of the most efficient seasons of his career in 2017. His yards per carry (4.9) were his second highest, and his 288 total touches were the most he has ever received. His Production Premium value of +22.2 (from playerprofiler.com) was sixteenth in the league among running backs.
Some of Kamara’s best performances coincided with Ingram’s most productive games, and only three times did Kamara score double-digit PPR points while Ingram was held to single-digit scoring. Two of these games were divisional matchups against Tampa Bay. Tampa was able to shut down New Orleans’s potent rushing attack despite having the 23rd ranked rushing defense. The majority of Kamara’s points came in the receiving game. Both weeks, he caught six passes for 84 yards. Kamara also caught a touchdown in the Week 9 matchup and returned a kickoff for a touchdown during the Week 17 contest. Ingram had a total of five receptions for 21 yards between the two games.
If Payton decides to split Ingram’s carries up among everyone except Kamara, that leaves him with the same share as last year. With an almost guaranteed regression, Alvin Kamara will surely produce fewer yardage than last year, which likely translates to less scoring. This means that he will not be near the fantasy stud that he is heralded to be. Will he still be a dynamic threat, capable of making defenders look silly? Yeah, I don’t see why not. But he is almost certainly not worth the fifth overall pick in PPR leagues, which is his current ADP.
Alvin Kamara was a super efficient, explosive jack-of-all-trades player last year and he won’t lose all of his skill over the offseason. However, a regression closer to the average is expected, and Sean Payton has stated that he will not be increasing Kamara’s workload, with or without Mark Ingram in the lineup. With more proven running backs, drafting Alvin Kamara high in the first round is not a move I would recommend making.