Alvin Kamara Is More Than the Best of the Rest - Footballguys

A detailed look at Alvin Kamara's fantasy prospects for 2018. 

5 Reasons Why Alvin Kamara Isn’t just a Consolation Prize

Conventional wisdom has Alvin Kamara as the “best of the rest” among fantasy commodities. Some combination of Todd Gurley, David Johnson, LeVeon Bell, and Ezekiel Elliott are perceived as the must-haves, and Kamara is viewed as the next best thing. While those other backs warrant consideration ahead of Kamara, it would be wrong to think the talented second-year tailback doesn’t belong in the same tier.

  • Kamara is a focal point of a top-five offense
  • No team relied on its running backs more than New Orleans last season
  • Mark Ingram II is suspended for four games and in the final year of his contract
  • Dual-purpose running backs like Kamara tend to maintain their value better than traditional workhorse types
  • Kamara performed at an elite level, as both a runner and receiver – his skill set does not suggest last year’s breakout was a fluke

Unexpected Breakout

We look back on last year’s rookie class with awe, but Kamara’s performance was the most surprising of the bunch. Fantasy owners discounted Kamara in drafts. It’s no surprise Mark Ingram II was more of a priority, he was the incumbent and finished as a top-10 fantasy back in 2016. But did you remember Kamara wasn’t even the second Saints running back off the board, on average? That honor went to Adrian Peterson. Kamara was nearly an afterthought in drafts:

  • 3rd Saints running back drafted
  • 59th overall running back drafted
  • 10th rookie running back drafted

Fantasy owners know it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish. Kamara may have been a deep sleeper in August drafts, but he was an elite, every-week fantasy starter for most of the season.

  • 120 carries
  • 728 yards rushing
  • 6.1 yards per rush
  • 8 rushing touchdowns
  • 81 receptions
  • 826 yards receiving
  • 10.2 yards per reception
  • 5 receiving touchdowns
  • RB4 in standard scoring
  • RB3 in points-per-reception (PPR) scoring

A Re-Commitment to the Run(ning Backs)

The Sean Payton era has been synonymous with prolific passing, in no small part because of Drew Brees. Brees has led the NFL in passing yards seven times in 12 seasons with New Orleans and has averaged 624 passing attempts. However, the Saints had not won a single playoff game since their Super Bowl championship in 2009. It was time for a change. Just when the league thought they had Payton’s offense figured out, he flipped the script and re-discovered the value of a powerhouse running game.

Run/Pass Ratio during Sean Payton's Tenure (2007-2017)

Year
Run Percentage
Pass Percentage
2007
37.5%
62.5%
2008
38.4%
61.6%
2009 (Super Bowl)
46.4%
53.6%
2010
36.8%
63.2%
2011
39.8%
60.2%
2012
36.1%
63.9%
2013
37.8%
62.2%
2014
37.9%
62.1%
2015
37.3%
62.7%
2016
38.3%
61.7%
2017
45.6%
54.4%

In most seasons, Payton’s Saints have thrown the ball more than 60% of the time. Last year was far more balanced, with the team running the ball nearly 46% of team snaps. It’s no coincidence the only other time New Orleans ran the ball this much was their Super Bowl year. Rather than view last season as an outlier, view it as a veteran coach finally going back to what made him successful in the first place.

Looking deeper into last year’s transformation, it wasn’t just the running game that found new importance; it was the running backs themselves. The running backs accounted for a larger part of both the rushing and passing game than ever before.

% of Team Totals for Saints Running Backs (2007-2017)

Year
RuAtt
RuYds
RuTDs
Tgts
Recs
RecYds
RecTDs
Touches
Yards
TDs
FPTs
Year
RushAtt
RushYds
RushTDs
Targets
Recs
RecYds
RecTDs
Touches
Yards
TDs
FPts
2007
92.4%
95.0%
85.7%
29.6%
33.0%
19.8%
10.7%
60.6%
38.5%
35.7%
36.0%
2008
94.4%
96.7%
95.0%
26.5%
29.5%
18.6%
26.5%
61.0%
37.3%
51.9%
38.4%
2009
92.5%
93.8%
90.5%
25.8%
28.0%
17.2%
20.6%
63.6%
41.8%
47.3%
39.3%
2010
92.8%
97.4%
100.0%
20.9%
24.8%
14.4%
6.3%
55.8%
34.8%
26.8%
29.9%
2011
93.0%
94.1%
93.8%
29.8%
32.8%
21.7%
22.2%
61.7%
42.0%
41.0%
39.1%
2012
94.6%
97.6%
90.0%
29.6%
33.3%
22.7%
23.3%
61.9%
40.2%
35.8%
37.2%
2013
88.7%
96.5%
70.0%
31.7%
38.3%
24.1%
15.4%
61.8%
40.2%
26.5%
36.7%
2014
91.1%
88.3%
87.5%
25.4%
28.6%
18.7%
9.4%
57.7%
37.3%
35.4%
34.1%
2015
91.6%
97.8%
93.3%
22.6%
26.8%
20.0%
9.4%
56.7%
37.3%
36.2%
33.6%
2016
91.8%
96.4%
82.4%
24.7%
27.0%
16.8%
26.3%
57.0%
36.6%
43.6%
35.2%
2017
88.9%
97.3%
91.3%
34.0%
37.1%
29.0%
26.1%
64.9%
51.0%
58.7%
48.5%

The Saints running backs accounted for 64.9% of team touches, 51.0% of total yards, 58.7% of touchdowns, and 48.5% of fantasy points scored. The combination of Mark Ingram II and Alvin Kamara were the new stars of the show.

Player
Team
RushYds
RushTDs
Recs
RecYds
RecTDs
FPTs
%fromTDs
PPR FPTs
%TDsPPR
Rex Burkhead
NE
264
5
30
254
3
100
48.1%
129.8
37.0%
Jonathan Stewart
Car
680
6
8
52
1
115
36.5%
123.2
34.1%
Austin Ekeler
LAC
260
2
27
279
3
84
35.8%
110.9
27.1%
Todd Gurley
LAR
1,305
13
64
788
6
323
35.3%
387.3
29.4%
Tevin Coleman
Atl
630
5
27
299
3
141
34.1%
167.9
28.6%
Latavius Murray
Min
842
8
15
102
-
142
33.7%
157.4
30.5%
NO
728
8
82
826
5
233
33.4%
315.4
24.7%
Dion Lewis
NE
896
6
32
214
3
165
32.7%
197.0
27.4%
NO
1,124
12
58
416
-
226
31.9%
284.0
25.4%
Melvin Gordon
LAC
1,105
8
58
476
4
230
31.3%
288.1
25.0%
DeMarco Murray
Ten
659
6
39
266
1
135
31.2%
173.5
24.2%
Chris Thompson
Was
294
2
39
510
4
116
30.9%
155.4
23.2%
Leonard Fournette
Jac
1,040
9
36
302
1
194
30.9%
230.2
26.1%
Jamaal Williams
GB
556
4
25
262
2
118
30.6%
142.8
25.2%
Jordan Howard
Chi
1,120
9
23
125
-
179
30.3%
201.5
26.8%
Ezekiel Elliott
Dal
983
7
26
269
2
179
30.1%
205.2
26.3%
Javorius Allen
Bal
591
4
46
250
2
120
30.0%
166.1
21.7%
Ameer Abdullah
Det
552
4
25
162
1
101
29.6%
126.4
23.7%
Marlon Mack
Ind
358
3
21
225
1
82
29.2%
103.3
23.2%
Theo Riddick
Det
286
3
53
444
2
103
29.1%
156.0
19.2%
Derrick Henry
Ten
744
5
11
136
1
124
29.0%
135.0
26.7%
Devonta Freeman
Atl
865
7
36
317
1
166
28.9%
202.2
23.7%
Duke Johnson
Cle
348
4
74
693
3
146
28.7%
220.1
19.1%
Marshawn Lynch
Oak
891
7
20
152
-
146
28.7%
166.3
25.3%
J.D. McKissic
Sea
187
1
34
266
2
63
28.4%
97.3
18.5%
Christian McCaffrey
Car
435
2
80
651
5
151
27.9%
230.6
18.2%
Carlos Hyde
SF
940
8
59
350
-
177
27.1%
236.0
20.3%
Kareem Hunt
KC
1,327
8
53
455
3
244
27.0%
297.2
22.2%
Orleans Darkwa
NYG
751
5
19
116
-
117
25.7%
135.7
22.1%
LeVeon Bell
Pit
1,291
9
85
655
2
261
25.3%
345.6
19.1%
Bilal Powell
NYJ
772
5
23
170
-
124
24.2%
147.2
20.4%
Alex Collins
Bal
973
6
23
187
-
152
23.7%
175.0
20.6%
Jerick McKinnon
Min
570
3
51
421
2
129
23.2%
180.1
16.7%
LeSean McCoy
Buf
1,138
6
59
448
2
207
23.2%
265.6
18.1%
James White
NE
171
-
56
429
3
78
23.1%
134.0
13.4%
Lamar Miller
Hou
888
3
36
327
3
158
22.9%
193.5
18.6%
Cin
458
2
43
389
2
109
22.1%
151.7
15.8%
Matt Breida
SF
465
2
21
180
1
83
21.8%
103.5
17.4%
Kenyan Drake
Mia
644
3
32
239
1
112
21.4%
144.3
16.6%
Matt Forte
NYJ
381
2
38
293
1
85
21.1%
123.4
14.6%
Joe Mixon
Cin
626
4
30
287
-
115
20.8%
145.3
16.5%
Tarik Cohen
Chi
370
2
53
358
1
91
19.8%
143.8
12.5%
LeGarrette Blount
Phi
766
2
8
50
1
100
18.1%
107.6
16.7%
Frank Gore
Ind
961
3
29
245
1
145
16.6%
173.6
13.8%
C.J. Anderson
Den
1,007
3
28
224
1
147
16.3%
175.1
13.7%
Samaje Perine
Was
603
1
22
182
1
91
13.3%
112.5
10.7%
JayAjayi
Mia/Phi
873
1
24
158
1
115
10.4%
139.1
8.6%
Isaiah Crowell
Cle
853
2
28
182
-
116
10.4%
143.5
8.4%
Devontae Booker
Den
299
1
30
275
-
63
9.5%
93.4
6.4%
Wayne Gallman
NYG
476
-
34
193
1
73
8.2%
106.9
5.6%
TOTALs
35,346
231
1,873
15,549
83
6,974
27.0%
8,846.5
21.3%

Kamara was more reliant on touchdowns than the average running back, but not alarmingly so. In standard leagues, touchdowns accounted for 33.4% of his points (vs. 27.0%, on average) and in PPR leagues touchdowns amounted to 24.7% of his total (vs. 21.3%, on average). You’ll note there’s a correlation between touchdown reliance, and playing in a top offense. Unless you think the Saints are going to fall out of the league’s upper echelon, there’s no reason to fear Kamara (or Ingram’s) touchdown totals overinflated their 2018 prospects.

Beyond Compare – Literally

Fantasy owners love to use historical comparables to help shape the narrative, but Kamara’s rookie season is (almost) without compare. Over the last 20 years, only 15 rookie running backs gained 1,500 yards from scrimmage – Kamara included.

Rookies with at least 1,500 yards from scrimmage (1998-2017)

Player
Team
Year
Games
Rush
RushYds
Y/R
RushTDs
Recs
RecYds
Y/R
RecTDs
FPTs
FPTs/Game
LaDainian Tomlinson
SD
2001
16
339
1,236
3.7
10
59
367
6.2
-
279.3
17.5
Fred Taylor
Jac
1998
15
264
1,223
4.6
14
44
421
9.6
3
310.4
20.7
Steve Slaton
Hou
2008
16
268
1,282
4.8
9
50
377
7.5
1
275.9
17.2
Clinton Portis
Den
2002
16
273
1,508
5.5
15
33
364
11.0
2
322.2
20.1
Adrian Peterson
Min
2007
14
238
1,341
5.6
12
19
268
14.1
1
257.9
18.4
Alfred Morris
Was
2012
16
335
1,606
4.8
13
11
77
7.0
-
257.3
16.1
Doug Martin
TB
2012
16
319
1,454
4.6
11
49
472
9.6
1
313.6
19.6
Jamal Lewis
Bal
2000
16
309
1,364
4.4
6
27
296
11.0
-
229.0
14.3
NO
2017
16
120
728
6.1
8
82
826
10.1
5
315.4
19.7
Edgerrin James
Ind
1999
16
369
1,553
4.2
13
62
586
9.5
4
377.9
23.6
Kareem Hunt
KC
2017
16
272
1,327
4.9
8
53
455
8.6
3
297.2
18.6
Jordan Howard
Chi
2016
15
252
1,313
5.2
6
29
298
10.3
1
232.1
15.5
Matt Forte
Chi
2008
16
316
1,238
3.9
8
63
477
7.6
4
306.5
19.2
Ezekiel Elliott
Dal
2016
15
322
1,631
5.1
15
32
363
11.3
1
327.4
21.8
Mike Anderson
Den
2000
14
297
1,487
5.0
15
23
169
7.4
-
278.6
19.9

A look at the other players on this list should instill confidence in Kamara's outlook. Most of these running backs were dominant fantasy players for many years; it's rarified company. On the other hand, is this the best comparable group for the Saints dynamo? Every other running back on this list ran for at least 1,200 yards while Kamara ran for just 728 yards. For reference, the running backs on this list suffered a 15% decline in their fantasy points per game the following seasons, but the variance was wide. LaDainian Tomlinson's fantasy production increased nearly 40% in his second season, whereas Mike Anderson's per-game value fell 67%.

Is there a better comp group? Let's instead look at rookie running backs with at least 500 rushing and 500 receiving yards; it's a short list.

Rookie Running Backs with 500+ Rushing and 500+ Receiving Yards (1998-2017)

Player
Team
Year
Games
Rush
RushYds
Y/R
RushTDs
Recs
RecYds
Y/R
RecTDs
FPTs
FPTs/Game
NO
2017
16
120
728
6.1
8
82
826
10.1
5
315.4
19.7
Edgerrin James
Ind
1999
16
369
1,553
4.2
13
62
586
9.5
4
377.9
23.6
Reggie Bush
NO
2006
16
155
565
3.7
6
88
742
8.4
2
266.7
16.7
Cin
2013
16
170
695
4.1
5
56
514
9.2
3
224.9
14.1

Observations:

  • Edgerrin James is an all-time great, but as we've already discussed, he ran for 1,553 yards and had 3x the rushing attempts as Kamara -- he doesn't seem to be a realistic comparison.
  • Reggie Bush's rookie season is most comparable to Kamara's, but he wasn't as explosive. He averaged 3.7 yards per rush while Kamara averaged 6.1 yards. Bush averaged 8.4 yards per catch while Kamara averaged more than 10 yards per reception.
  • Giovani Bernard, like Bush, had a similar workload to Kamara but wasn't as productive on a per carry, per catch, or touchdown basis.
  • All three comparables (James, Bush, and Bernard) raised their per-game fantasy totals in their second seasons.

It's not hyperbole to say Alvin Kamara is a one-of-a-kind player.

What's Changed This Year?

New Orleans underwent very few changes this offseason, which bodes well for Kamara's ability to sustain last year's productivity. Head coach Sean Payton and offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael are back. Drew Brees re-signed for another Super Bowl push. The offensive line's key starters remain the same. Ben Watson returns for an encore performance at tight end, but he's long past his prime. At receiver, Cameron Meredith and rookie TreQuan Smith add depth, but neither are real threats to dislodging Kamara's role.

Does Mark Ingram II’s Suspension Change Things?

Veteran Mark Ingram II has been suspended for the first four games of the season for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. Ingram happens to be a free agent, so the suspension comes at an inopportune time for the veteran. Some analysts believe Ingram’s suspension means an increased workload for Kamara, but don’t count on it. Sean Payton isn’t going to force Kamara into a role he’s unsuited for, and after last year’s sensational debut, there’s no reason to expect the coaches to force Kamara into becoming a bellcow. Kamara never carried the ball more than 12 times in a game, and his efficiency benefitted by the judicious usage. Expect Kamara to average 10-to-12 carries per game regardless of Ingram’s status. Payton and Carmichael will use the other running backs to fill Ingram’s role during September.

Projections

Year
Projector
Games
Rush
Yards
TDs
Rec
Yards
TDs
FumLst
2018
15.3
148.0
796
7.2
79.0
758
5.7
2.8
2018
16.0
160.0
815
8.0
85.0
850
6.0
0.0
2018
16.0
160.0
800
7.0
80.0
760
4.0
1.0
2018
16.0
136.0
651
6.5
100.5
955
4.9
2.5

Final Thoughts

The 2017 running back class will go down in history as one of the best. Leonard Fournette dominated as the centerpiece of a vastly-improved Jaguars. Kareem Hunt led the league in rushing yards for a playoff-bound Chiefs. Dalvin Cook looked like a future MVP before getting hurt. Joe Mixon flashed franchise potential. But it was Alvin Kamara who had the best year; one of the best rookie seasons of the last 20 years. He became one of only 15 rookie running backs to gain 1,500+ yards from scrimmage and was one of only four rookies to gain at least 500 yards rushing and receiving. While Kamara wasn't asked to shoulder a heavy workload as a ball-carrier, he was unbelievably efficient (6.1 yards per rush) as a runner. As a receiver, he effectively replaced the productivity of a wide receiver, and could easily top 100 receptions and 1,000 yards receiving at some point in his career. The 2018 Saints are little changed from the 2017 version, which means Kamara's role is secure and his workload is predictable. He probably won't score 13 touchdowns again, but he wasn't touchdown dependent to an alarming degree. His talent, pedigree, coaching staff, offensive system, and quarterback give the second-year star a high floor to go along with a top-5 ceiling. If you're drafting in the middle of the first round, don't feel like Kamara is "settling" once Bell, Elliott, Johnson, and Gurley are off the draft board. Kamara deserves consideration in the same tier, particularly in PPR formats.


Other Perspectives

From the Footballguys Shark Pool Forum:

Bojang0301 says:

"If there is a downside to Kamara’s game it’s that his efficiency being repeated would defy all logic. Against that argument though, it’s hard to deny him seeing an increase in touches with Ingram out for the first four weeks. In the years I looked at Payton’s offense (‘11-‘17 excluding ‘12) 4 out of those six seasons RB’s saw over 150 targets and the other two were 108 and 137. I’ll be interested how far up in the top 10 RB’s Kamara falls but these are my projections for better or worse:

164att 836yds 5.1ypa 5TD

108tgt 81rec 760yds 9.3ypc 5TD"

travdogg says:

"Kamara blew me away last year. He looked like another Jamaal Charles. I actually think he's being underrated, he's a huge mismatch in the passing game, and the Saints took it very slow with him. Even before Ingram's suspension, I felt Kamara would leave him in the dust, the suspension only amplifies that in my eyes. He's simply too good to take off the field now that he's proven himself. 

I think his passing game work stays the same or goes up slightly, and he sees double the rushing work. This feels somewhat reminiscent of the 2009 Titans to me, where people were slow to get on the Chris Johnson bandwagon because White ate up touches and TD's, but the Titans realized Johnson was their best weapon and rode him. I think Kamara leaves Ingram in the dust a bit. Add maybe 100 touches from Ingram to Kamara. 

Kamara had 1500 yards and 13 TD's last year. I think those TD numbers are fair to expect again, and 200-300 more yards with more work is reasonable, and that is assuming he loses at least a full yard off his per touch rate.

I'm probably going to be the high man on Kamara, but he's my RB2 after Gurley. More TDs than Bell, more receiving than Elliott, and a better offense than Johnson."