Alvin Kamara Belongs in the MVP Conversation
We all know running backs are very unlikely to win the MVP in today's game, with quarterbacks taking home the honor in 9 of the last 10 seasons (Adrian Peterson in 2012 being the lone exception).
It makes perfect sense. No singular position impacts the game the way a quarterback can, and the elite passers are immensely valuable.
This year, however, Todd Gurley is getting some MVP chatter. It's fully deserved, too, because he's been an outstanding dual-threat producer for the Los Angeles Rams and a vital cog in their incredible one-year turnaround.
In his first year in the NFL, Kamara put together one of the most productive and efficient running back seasons in the history of our Net Expected Points (NEP) database, which dates back to 2000.
It's hard for a running back to remain highly efficient when he receives a heavy workload, something that Gurley was tasked with, but Kamara paired his superb raw production -- 728 rushing yards and 8 scores plus 81 grabs, 826 receiving yards, and 5 more touchdowns through the air -- with incredible per-touch efficiency.
By our numbers, Kamara paced running backs in just about everything this season.
Cream of the Crop
We'll take a look at Kamara through the eyes of our NEP metric, which we use to track the efficiency of both teams and players. A three-yard run on 3rd and 2 is wildly different than a three-yard run on 3rd and 4, and NEP helps account for that by tracking the expected points players add to their team's total over the course of a season. We'll also look at Rushing Success Rate, which is the percentage of a back's carries that resulted in positive NEP.
Overall, Kamara produced 90.69 Total NEP -- 57.07 Reception NEP and 33.62 Rushing NEP, both of which we'll elaborate on here shortly. That puts his 2017 campaign among the best in our database, with only five running backs since 2000 having added more Total NEP in a single season.
|Running Back||Season||Total NEP|
Kamara's numbers are up there with some of the best and most well-rounded running backs in recent memory.
In terms of just this season, Kamara destroyed everyone at his position.
|Running Back||Total NEP|
Clearly, from looking at the types of backs on this list, you can tell how valuable receiving is when it comes to our metrics. Again, we'll get more into Rushing NEP and Reception NEP, but just know that NEP skews toward pass-catching backs because going to the air is inherently more efficient than running the ball.
As for Kamara, what we just witnessed was not only one of the best rookie running back seasons of all-time but one of the best all-around seasons for any running back in recent history.
On the Ground
In terms of rushing efficiency, Kamara has no peers this season among high-volume backs, according to our metrics.
He finished with a league-best 0.28 Rushing NEP per carry, easily out-pacing the second-ranked back in that metric, Dion Lewis, who checked in at 0.16 Rushing NEP per carry. After Kamara and Lewis, no other back was above 0.05 Rushing NEP per attempt.
If you're new to numberFire, that data probably doesn't mean much to you, so let's put it in context.
Every time Kamara carried the ball -- something he did 120 times -- he added, on average, 0.28 expected points for the Saints.
Because running is so much less efficient than passing, any positive Rushing NEP per carry clip is really good: the league-average Rushing NEP per carry this season was -0.05. Further, the more carries a back gets, the harder it is to maintain sublime efficiency.
Among the 47 backs with at least 100 carries, only 12 finished the year with a positive Rushing NEP per carry mark.
Here's this year's top five in Rushing NEP per carry (among those with at least 100 carries).
|Running Back||Carries||Rushing NEP Per Carry|
Now, to be fair, Kamara had a much better chance to maintain his sparkling efficiency because he didn't see as many carries as the NFL's true workhorse backs -- guys like Le'Veon Bell (321 attempts), LeSean McCoy (281), and so on.
But 120 rushes isn't an insignificant number, and Kamara straight crushed it with his opportunities.
In addition to ranking first in Rushing NEP per carry, he also came in tops in Rushing Success Rate at 47.50% -- meaning 47.50% of his carries resulted in positive NEP. The league average there was 38.08%. That tells us he was carving out consistent gains and wasn't living off big plays, even though he made a lot of them.
It's worth pointing out the last name on the above table: Mark Ingram. With the Saints having such a good go of it on the ground -- boasting two of 2017's premier runners and having the third-ranked run game, per our schedule-adjusted metrics -- was Kamara just a product of a run-friendly environment?
Well, Ingram definitely had a phenomenal year, as well, setting career highs in carries (230), rushing yards (1,124) and rushing touchdowns (12). But his big season actually allows us to compare Kamara more directly to one of the NFL's other top backs (Ingram) and get an apples-to-apples view.
Comparing running backs from different teams is tough to do given personnel and scheme differences. It is a lot easier to do when both dudes play in exactly the same environment.
Ingram was really good in 2017, but Kamara was markedly better across the board.
|Player||Att.||Rush NEP/Carry||Success Rate||Targets||Reception NEP||Total NEP|
Ingram almost had twice as many carries, so it was going to be tough for him to match Kamara's per-rush efficiency, but in terms of Success Rate, Kamara easily outperformed him. Both were heavily involved in the passing game, and Kamara ran (caught?) circles around him as a receiver.
Through the Air
Speaking of Kamara's receiving ability, other than sharing the backfield with Ingram, one of the reasons Kamara had only 120 carries is his heavy involvement as a pass-game weapon.
Kamara was clearly the most efficient runner by our metrics among 100-carry backs, and he was also the most productive receiver among running backs, edging out some stiff competition in Christian McCaffrey, Chris Thompson, and Gurley to lead the position in Reception NEP.
|Running Back||Targets||Reception NEP|
In fairness, Thompson was set to lap the field prior to his injury, putting up a sizzling 0.91 Reception NEP per target. But Kamara was pretty darn efficient as a pass catcher, too. Among backs with at least 50 targets, he ranked third in Reception NEP per target with a mark of 0.57.
Overall, Kamara's 57.07 Reception NEP is the seventh-best single-season total since 2000, as far back as our metrics go.
|Running Back||Season||Targets||Reception NEP|
When you add all this together -- Kamara's super-efficient ground game with his highly-productive (and extremely-efficient) receiving prowess -- you get a really special season.
No matter how you slice it, Kamara had an incredible season, one of the best in recent history.
His numbers stack up very well when compared to all running back seasons since 2000, and his output is in its own stratosphere among the rest of the league this year.
If we're in the mood to give a running back the MVP for productivity and overall impact, it should be Kamara.