Alvin Kamara Is Unstoppable
It’s hard to find a running back playing better this season than Alvin Kamara. That’s not just compared against other rookies, a stacked class in which Kamara was the fifth of his position taken in the 2017 NFL Draft. Kamara has played like one of the best running backs in the league overall. At this point, you probably don’t need an article telling you Alvin Kamara is good, but maybe you might need one explaining just how good.
Whether it’s been on the ground or through the air, Kamara has produced whenever he’s touched the ball. By our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, no running back has produced more than Kamara this season. While splitting time with Mark Ingram in the New Orleans Saints backfield, Kamara has just 77 rushing attempts, which ranks 38th in the league. But with those 77 attempts, Kamara leads all running backs in Rushing NEP at 29.25 -- meaning on those 77 carries, he’s priced nearly 30 more points than would be expected of an average runner. Only three running backs in 2016 produced over 30 Rushing NEP across a full season. None did it in 2015.
There’s currently a bigger gap in Rushing NEP between Kamara and second-place Duke Johnson of the Cleveland Browns than there is between Johnson and the 15th-place runner, Orleans Darkwa of the New York Giants.
As you would expect by the previous numbers, Kamara also leads running backs in Rushing NEP per carry. 59 running backs have carried the ball at least 50 times through Week 12, and only 17 of them have produced a Rushing NEP per carry of at least 0.0. Kamara is at 0.38, a full tenth of a point above Johnson at 0.28, who himself is 0.11 above the Green Bay Packers’ Aaron Jones in third place. Here are the runners who have produced at least 0.0 Rushing NEP per carry this season:
|Player||Rushes||Rushing NEP||Rushing NEP per Carry|
Among those 59 backs, only four have a Success Rate -- the percentage of runs that positively impact NEP -- of at least 50 percent. You can probably guess Kamara is one of them.
|Player||Rushes||Rushing Successes||Rushing Success Rate|
Just that success on the ground would be enough to make Kamara one of the most productive backs in the league, but that’s not even where he’s been the most dangerous. That’s his work in the passing game. Kamara is second on the Saints in both targets (68) and receptions (55). Among running backs, only Christian McCaffrey, Le'Veon Bell, and Carlos Hyde have more targets, and just Bell and McCaffrey have more receptions. Of those four, Kamara is the only back to play less than 68 percent of his team’s offensive snaps, and Kamara is at just 44 percent on the season -- though he’s played at least 56 percent in each of the Saints’ past two games.
Because of his work on both the ground and through the air, no running back has gotten more out of each touch than Kamara has through 12 weeks. Among 40 backs who have touched the ball at least 100 times this season, Kamara leads in NEP per touch at over half a point per touch -- 0.51. He leads by more than a half-point over the now-injured Chris Thompson, who is more than sixth-tenths of a point over third place.
Let’s graph all of them out. The big gold bar, that’s Kamara. The small gold bar is his teammate, Mark Ingram.
Kamara’s success has been a perfect marriage between skill set and scheme. There’s a reason the Saints traded a 2018 second-round pick in order to move up in the third round and select the Tennessee product. They saw the potential in how to use him. (It's also the reason they realized they needed to trade away Adrian Peterson -- perhaps a little too late.)
The Saints have gotten Kamara into space whenever they've gotten a chance. Take a look at this 17-yard gain against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 9. New Orleans ran a counter play with the entire offensive line blocking to the left. That brought just about the whole defense to that side of the field. But Kamara switched direction before the handoff and followed Coby Fleener, who pulled to the right as the lead blocker. Kamara got out in space behind Fleener and even forced a missed tackle on poor safety Chris Conte (23).
What’s really made Kamara special as a runner is his lack of wasted movement whenever he touches the ball. Per the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, Kamara gains one positive yard for every 2.88 yards actually run, which is the lowest rate in the league. No other running back with at least 60 carries is under a 3:1 ratio.
Take a look at this 24-yard run against Washington in Week 11. The run started to the outside right and Kamara saw the cutback lane to the left and he just glided through the hole. Every step has a purpose. It’s so smooth.
Everything about the New Orleans run game is clicking -- they’re second as a team in Adjusted Rushing NEP per play. The combination of backs and the offensive line has created an ideal environment for a ground game to thrive.
Below is a 10-yard gain later in the game against Washington. Kamara ran straight at the outside shoulder of left tackle Terron Armstead (72) and trusted the tackle would move his way up the linebacker after an initial double-team of the defensive tackle. Kamara never broke stride, Armstead opened the hole, and an easy 10 yards was gained.
Then there’s Kamara’s work as a route runner, which head coach Sean Payton compared to Marshall Faulk’s back in training camp. While there’s an increased effort to get running backs in the slot or out wide in the passing game, New Orleans is still creating those mismatches with Kamara in the backfield. All six of his receptions against the Los Angeles Rams in Week 12, en route to 101 yards, came from the backfield. More often than not, that puts him against linebackers in open space and when he gets to go one-on-one against players like Alec Ogletree, Kamara is basically uncoverable.
Kamara isn’t just making his case for Offensive Rookie of the Year, he’s making one for Offensive Player of the Year. He’s already fourth in yards from scrimmage and tied for second in total touchdowns. Maybe his pace will slow down, but even if it does, there’s so much room for regression and for Kamara to still be one of the most impactful players in the league. But for regression to hit, some team is going to have to figure out how to stop him.
To this point, no one has.
Dan Pizzuta is not a FanDuel employee. The views expressed in his articles are the author's alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of FanDuel.