News & Analysis

Exception Report: Alvin Kamara, superstar rookie

November 26, 2017; Los Angeles, CA, USA; New Orleans Saints running back Alvin Kamara (41) runs the ball in for a touchdown against the Los Angeles Rams during the second half at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to the Exception Report. This series is designed to examine players and their impressive seasons, games, and/or plays. It looks for the outliers and helps understand how they are doing it and if it can continue.

For those paying attention, the rookie running back class has uncovered a strong and diverse class of fantasy contributors. Expectations were high for first-round picks like Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffrey, but others walking into less favorable situations were seen as longshots to contribute in their rookie year. One of those was Alvin Kamara, a talented but flawed running back who was drafted by the Saints in the second round and seen as a potential receiving back in their committee. That was the case early, but the departure of Adrian Peterson has swung the door wide open. There have been 27 running backs who have managed at least 1,500 yards from scrimmage their rookie years, but only five have managed the feat with 500-plus receiving yards. Kamara passed the 500-yard receiving mark this week, so he aims to become the sixth. The other five are below, courtesy of Pro Football Reference:

Name Season Rushing Yards Receiving Yards Yards From Scrimmage
Edgerrin James 1999 1553 586 2139
Marshall Faulk 1994 1282 522 1804
Herschel Walker 1986 737 837 1574
Billy Sims 1980 1303 621 1924
Charley Taylor 1964 755 814 1569

How did he get here?

A former top high school running back, Kamara initially was set to attend Alabama, win a Heisman, and become an elite NFL draft prospect. Between a freshman knee injury and multiple behavioral issues, though, Kamara left the team by the end of the season. After a year at community college, Kamara was granted a second chance at Tennessee, where he split time with Jalen Hurd.

A glaring issue in the eyes of many was Kamara’s (lack of) workload. In two years at Tennessee, Kamara saw a total of 209 carries despite playing in 24 games (8.7 carries per game) with an additional 75 receptions. Over that same time period, Hurd had 397 carries and 33 receptions. Kamara played on just 40 percent of the team snaps during those two years compared to 60 percent for Hurd, leading to some scouts doubting Kamara’s ability to handle a full workload.

Focusing on his 2016, Kamara showed some serious skills, starting with an ability to avoid tackles. He ranked fourth in elusive rating, including 20 missed tackles on his 33 receptions, also ranked fourth. Those broken tackles helped with long gains, as Kamara accounted for more than 50 percent of his yardage on runs of 15-plus yards.

As a receiver, Kamara was fourth in yards per route run, ahead of players like Joe Mixon and Kareem Hunt. 14 of his 33 receptions went for 10-plus yards as well, showing that explosiveness extends to the receiving game. Kamara also had eight red-zone targets, a surprising figure considering he had just 11 red-zone carries in 2016.

What has he done?

The Saints thought they had a versatile weapon in Kamara, and he hasn’t disappointed. All he needed was opportunity. Before the Peterson trade, Kamara averaged 35 percent of the offensive snaps. Since the trade, that number has gone up to 49 percent.

Look at his receiving work first. Kamara has run the 12th-most routes among running backs. But the Peterson splits apply here. Since the trade, Kamara is fifth in total routes run and first in yards per route run. Before the trade, Kamara was 21st in total routes and ninth in yards per route run. Overall, Kamara is averaging roughly six targets per game and has eight more missed tackles forced on receptions (23) than the next-closest player (Tarik Cohen).

Focusing on his running ability, Kamara has been simply exceptional. He leads the NFL in elusive rating and has the highest average yards after contact (4.03) per attempt among qualified runners. He also already has nine runs of 15-plus yards, the most among running backs with less than 100 attempts (Dion Lewis is second with six). While Kamara is only averaging seven rushes per game, he has seen an increase after Peterson was traded from five to nearly nine per contest.

What can he do?

This will be the question until the Saints give him a larger workload. Given Mark Ingram’s own success, that may not happen barring injury or old age. That said, Kamara still has value. His workload has slowly been increasing with 15-plus opportunities (rush attempts plus targets) in four of the last six games. Given his big play ability, Kamara has immense upside in accumulating yards and long touchdowns.

The Saints also clearly like him in the red zone, seeing 24 touches (including a team leading nine receptions), which is just three less than Ingram. He has converted six of those into touchdowns. That is in stark contrast to what was given to him at Tennessee, but the Saints clearly see ability that the Volunteers did not.

In terms of hitting 1,500 total yards, Kamara has five games left and needs to gain 406 yards, roughly 81 yards per contest. So far, Kamara has averaged just under 100 yards per game for the season, but that number is just under 130 yards over the last six games. Part of this is fueled on big plays, which is hard to predict, but there is a good chance he reaches the mark.

Confidence level: 65%

What does this mean for fantasy?

Kamara is obviously a PPR asset, ranking third among running backs. He is first in fantasy points generated per opportunity — no surprise given the big plays Kamara has created. In standard scoring, he is also ranked third in both total points and fantasy points per opportunity. The touchdowns have been a welcomed surprise but it is hard to say if that can be sustained with Ingram around, as well as with Drew Brees in the twilight of his career. The talent is undeniable but expect him to be more of a second-tier running back than on the level of Todd Gurley or Le’Veon Bell. That’s not a bad place to be for keeper or dynasty owners looking for a backfield option to rely on.

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