Alvin Kamara Will Have to Be an Outlier to Live Up to the Hype

After a strong NFL combine showing, can Kamara live up to being a potential first-round pick?

I'm like a decade behind with this, but my wife and I started watching The Wire a couple of months ago. (Please don't spoil anything, we just finished Season 3.) As a result, I now understand Omar comin' references. I understand why everyone sees actor Michael B. Jordan only as "Wallace" and not "Vince," his character's name in Friday Night Lights. I understand why this gif is so awesome.

I now understand the hype. I get why everyone is so in love with the show, because the show is really, really good. Spectacularly good. Top-five good.

Here comes the segue: I don't get the same feeling when talking about incoming rookie running back Alvin Kamara.

Pre-combine, Kamara was getting first-round hype. After an impressive showing in shorts, his stock is rising.

But should teams be so optimistic about his NFL potential?

Strong Measurables

Kamara's 40-yard dash at the combine wasn't anything special, as his 4.56 time combined with his 214-pound frame gave him a Speed Score -- which adjusts 40 times for body size -- that ranks historically in the 55th percentile.

Where Kamara really came through was with his vertical and broad jumps, giving him the highest SPARQ score among this year's running back draft class.

Just to show how respectable Kamara's measurables were, two of his top-five comparables post-combine, per our numbers, were David Wilson (a first-round pick) and LaDainian Tomlinson (a first-round pick and one of the best running backs of all-time).

The combine showed that Kamara is indeed a freak athlete. That doesn't mean everything, though.

Real Usage Concerns

A couple of weeks ago, I analyzed a data set of successful NFL running backs to see what sort of college production traits they shared. Unsurprisingly, good running backs were also good in college. Who would've thought?

The absolute biggest knock on Kamara entering the draft is the fact that he wasn't even the starter on his own college team. He split carries with Jalen Hurd, who was far less efficient and not nearly as electric with the ball in his hands compared to Kamara.

Nevertheless, Kamara wasn't the lead back.

We can come up with reasons as to why this was the case, and there are certainly a lot of valid ones out there. But the bottom line, which can't be disputed, is that Alvin Kamara touched the ball a total of 210 times on the ground during his two years at Tennessee, and that's not great.

In fact, when you look at successful NFL running backs, that's not normal. Kamara had a 19.92% rushing market share (attempts) during his final season at Tennessee -- meaning, he saw just 19.92% of Tennessee's rushing attempts -- and among the 51-running-back subset analyzed in the study a couple of weeks back, the lowest attempt market share number was 21.28%.

Now, this may not seem like that big of a deal because Kamara's built like a receiving back. He's someone who fits the mold of a running back in today's NFL. His college receiving numbers were strong, and his athleticism should allow him to be a good receiver at the NFL level.

That may not be wrong -- it's probably right -- but seeing a high market share at the college level most certainly matters on some level.

For example, since the 2005 draft, we've seen 69 (nice) running backs capture at least one 1,000-yard season. Not rushing yards, though -- total yards. Meaning, we're looking at receiving here.

Of the 69 (nice), 6 came from FCS schools. The remaining 63 were from bigger programs.

Here's a list of players from this group who saw a sub-20% rushing market share during their final college season:

Player Games Attempts/G Attempt Market Share
Spencer Ware 12 7.83 17.84%
Peyton Hillis 13 4.77 9.92%

That's it. Of the 63 running backs with at least one 1,000-plus yard season since the 2005 draft, only Spencer Ware and Peyton Hillis saw a sub-20% rushing attempt market share during their final college season. And Hillis was playing with Darren McFadden and Felix Jones, while Ware played behind Jeremy Hill.

The fact is, running backs who excel at the next level -- no matter how they're excelling -- were at least semi-workhorses in college. I mean, among the 63-back subset, only 9 rushers had below a 30% backfield market share during their final collegiate season. And three of those players played fewer than 10 games during that season thanks to injury.

Even if you strictly go by Kamara's receiving production, it doesn't paint him as a pass-catching god. He caught 16.81% of Tennessee's completed passes this past year and finished with 12.65% of the team's receiving yards. Within this 63-running-back group, his reception market share number ranks sixth-best, and his receiving yardage market share rate is ninth.

Valuing Kamara

To be perfectly honest, Kamara is going to be an exciting player at the NFL level. If teams were drafting him in the third round rather than the rumored first then, sure, why not? His measurables are strong, and he has a lot of upside as a receiving threat out of the backfield.

But a first-round selection? To live up to that sort of expectation, he's going to have to be a legitimate outlier. (Or land in the perfect spot, like New Orleans.) Because NFL backs just don't become great with his type of college production.