We’re in the thick of the NFL offseason and it’s officially time to start fantasy football prep. I’ll be answering the biggest questions heading into the 2021 season. Click here to read the series of questions answered so far.
You only need one hand to count the number of running backs that have arguably been better than Alvin Kamara since the Saints selected him with the 67th overall pick of the 2017 NFL Draft. As a rusher, receiver — hell, even as a kick returner back in the day — Kamara has largely done nothing other than ball the hell out throughout his four-year professional career.
Of course, Kamara got some help along the way in the form of future Hall of Fame QB Drew Brees as well as the Saints’ perennial top-five offensive line. This isn’t to suggest that Brees and company were solely responsible for Kamara’s countless big plays and broken tackles; this was just the perfect marriage in terms of one of the league’s best backs meeting the game’s most accurate QB behind anyone’s idea of an elite offensive line.
Suddenly there’s uncertainty in the air in New Orleans surrounding Kamara’s fantasy stock after Brees retired. What follows is a breakdown on just how good Kamara has been over the past four seasons as well as what you should make of his fantasy value ahead of 2021.
Kamara has been a fantasy cheat code thanks to his receiving production
What makes Kamara’s workload so interesting over the years is the fact that he’s never eclipsed even 200 carries in a season. Sure, an average of 168 rush attempts per year isn’t nothing; we’re just used to seeing the league’s most productive RBs flirt with 300 carries, not consistently fail to even challenge the 200 mark.
The reason why this hasn’t mattered in Kamara’s fantasy career has been simple: receptions. There have been 10 instances of an RB catching more than 80 passes in a season since 2015; Kamara is responsible for four of them. It’s been the major source of his fantasy excellence.
- 2020: overall fantasy PPR RB1. Rushing: RB3. Receiving: RB1.
- 2019: overall fantasy PPR RB9. Rushing: RB22. Receiving: RB5.
- 2018: overall fantasy PPR RB4. Rushing: RB5. Receiving: RB4.
- 2017: overall fantasy PPR RB3. Rushing: RB16. Receiving: RB1.
Note that Kamara has scored eight, 14, five and 16 rushing TDs since 2017; he’s only been a legit fantasy RB1 as a rusher when also blessed with rather extreme TD totals.
We have four years of evidence that Kamara is perfectly capable of working as a top-10 fantasy and real life RB. Nobody is swaggier. However, the difference between him taking over fantasy and merely being a more than solid RB1 has been his receiving workload. Career receiving lines of 81 receptions-826 yards-5 touchdowns, 81-709-4, 81-533-1 and 83-756-5 exemplify this reality.
Considering present health, it’s fair to say Kamara would be in the conversation for Earth’s RB1 if we ever had to face off against aliens in a game of football to save the planet.
Alvin Kamara is a GODpic.twitter.com/D3f0wrqOtD
— Ian Hartitz (@Ihartitz) September 28, 2020
Unfortunately, fantasy football isn’t always about simply identifying the NFL’s best players at each position. More than anything, we want to chase volume, and we have a decent amount of evidence that Kamara won’t be seeing the same level of fantasy-friendly opportunity ahead of 2021.
Neither potential Saints QB figures to feed Kamara triple-digit targets
We’ve seen nine instances of Kamara functioning without Brees as his starting QB over the past two seasons. There was still plenty of good, as Kamara returned RB3, RB6 and RB9 finishes in full PPR scoring. However, he posted RB16, RB17, RB23, RB26, RB36 and RB37 production in his other six contests.
Kamara has been more of a borderline RB1 to RB2 in fantasy when Brees hasn’t been under center. He still averaged 6.2 targets per game with Teddy Bridgewater at QB; the larger issue was just two total scores inside of an offense that failed to surpass even 13 points in three of its five games together. The target total was far more concerning with Taysom Hill under center, as Kamara totaled just 16 pass-game opportunities in Weeks 11-14 last season. Things would’ve been even worse if he hadn’t found his way to the end zone on three of his 50 carries.
Recent reports seem to indicate that Jameis Winston’s stranglehold on the starting job might be far less firm than many of us thought entering the offseason. We have to at least consider what life might be like for Kamara with Hill as his full-time QB. It certainly didn’t look like the Saints prioritized feeding their stud RB targets in the same manner once they had a more mobile option under center, as Kamara’s 15 targets trailed both Emmanuel Sanders (17) and especially Michael Thomas (36) during Hill’s four starts. Hell, even Jared Cook (12) and Tre’Quan Smith (12) were right there.
The saddest part about the Taysom experience was that Hill (39 rush attempts) basically formed a three-way rushing committee with Kamara (50) and Murray (40). Dual-threat QBs themselves are fantastic fantasy assets for the same reason Kamara has been over the years: Having multiple avenues to rack up fantasy production is the closest thing our game has to a cheat code. And yet, mobile QBs simply haven’t been good for their RB’s fantasy business due to the reality that they 1) steal plenty of rush attempts in their own right, and 2) are more prone to scrambling than checking the ball down in the passing game.
Anybody who is pulling for Kamara to repeat his status as fantasy’s highest-scoring RB needs to be praying Winston wins this QB competition. Even this won’t necessarily guarantee bunches of targets for Kamara; Winston has regularly posted one of the league’s highest average target depths, and the only time he managed to feed a RB at least 50 receptions in a single season was Charles Sims (51-561-4) way back in 2015.
There’s certainly a lot of truth to the idea that Winston has never played with an RB like Kamara, and it’s unlikely a coach as smart as Sean Payton would ever let his stud back do anything other than function as a key cog in this offense. Still, he's potentially set up for fewer targets and less fantasy-friendly red zone touches than ever — for the first time we have more questions than answers when it comes to projecting Kamara as a high-end fantasy RB1 in 2021.
Add it all together and …
Kamara is still an RB1, he just probably won’t be *THE* RB1 again
At the moment I’d draft seven backs ahead of Kamara in fantasyland:
- Christian McCaffrey: somehow averaged even more PPR points per game in 2020 than he did in 2019.
- Dalvin Cook: continues to have a 400-touch ceiling if full health ever prevails.
- Saquon Barkley: like Cook, has too gaudy of a touch ceiling to fade even after accounting for injury risk.
- Derrick Henry: continues to prove he’s the exception to the rule that high-end RBs need a high target floor to thrive in fantasy.
- Aaron Jones: has an underrated chance to take the majority of Jamaal Williams’ leftover targets. Note that I would bump Jones behind Kamara if Aaron Rodgers winds up elsewhere or retires.
- Ezekiel Elliott: Cowboys still have $90 million reasons to give Zeke every touch he can handle; expect a return to high-end status with a healthier offensive line and Dak Prescott.
- Austin Ekeler: has the sort of fantasy-friendly receiving role we hope Kamara still has.
And then we have Kamara, who I’d select ahead of the likes of Nick Chubb, Cam Akers, Joe Mixon, Jonathan Taylor and more. We know Kamara has overall RB1 upside; that’s why he’s in my “It’s firmly RB1 szn” second tier at the position.
Still, we’re projecting him for 2021 based on the workload we expect for next season, not based on what necessarily happened over the last four years. For this reason, I’m lower on Kamara than most. He’s dealing with the first QB change of his career and simply doesn’t have the same three-down workhorse upside as some of the RBs ranked ahead of him due to the presence of Murray. You won’t be disappointed if Kamara is on your fantasy team in 2021; the ceiling is just more of a question than it's been in past years.
Murray is actually the RB I’ve found myself targeting more often due to the reality that he offers more weekly value than players priced higher, such as pure handcuffs like Tony Pollard, and a higher best-case scenario ceiling than scatbacks like Nyheim Hines. We saw Murray supply true top-three value in the only two non-Week 17 games Kamara has missed since 2019; he remains firmly inside of the top three handcuffs most worthy of targeting in fantasy drafts of all shapes and sizes.