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NFL Draft

Saints Are Using Alvin Kamara A Lot Differently In 2021

  • The Draft Network
  • October 28, 2021
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If you’ve watched the New Orleans Saints during the Drew Brees era, even in its later years, you know that the way their offense has looked this year is out of the ordinary.

As it stands right now, seven weeks into the 2021 season, the Saints are the only team in the NFL that is running the football more frequently than they pass it. There are some teams that are close. Cleveland and their two-headed monster of a backfield are barely under the 50% mark on the frequency of their running plays. Chicago is close behind them. But even the Browns are more than three percentage points behind the Saints, who are running the football just under 53% of the time.

What’s come along with this change in offensive philosophy is a change in how New Orleans has used their lead running back, Alvin Kamara. 

Since he entered the league, Kamara has been one of the NFL’s most productive backs. He led the NFL in yards per carry in his rookie season (6.1), and he has yet to finish a season with fewer than 4.5 yards per carry. He’s also been a prolific pass-catching threat out of the backfield, tallying more than 500 receiving yards and at least 80 catches each season. Prior to this season, though, Kamara had never been a workhorse back through which the offense ran.

Then Brees retired, Jameis Winston took over as quarterback of the Saints, and we’ve been able to see the lack of faith head coach Sean Payton has in his new signal-caller and the passing game. Suddenly, Kamara is a workhorse back. 

In four full years of his professional career, the Tennessee product never cracked the 200 rushing attempts mark in a single season. This year, he’s on pace to surpass 300 carries before playing a 17th game. His production has suffered for it, both on the ground and in the air.

All of those impressive stats I mentioned from his first four years? Yeah, he’s probably not catching up to that pace this year. While Kamara will likely set a new career-high in single-season rushing yards, it’s only because of how many extra carries he’s getting. But he isn’t Derrick Henry, he can’t steamroll his way to the same levels of production, especially with such a sudden and dramatic increase in rush attempts. Kamara’s yardage per carry has dropped to 3.7, which would be nearly a full yard lower than his previous career low (4.6 YPC) if his production levels don’t change. He’s also on pace for the fewest targets—and as a result, fewest receptions—of his career, even with an extra game. Against the Giants a few weeks ago, he didn’t record a single target for the first time in his career.

So, it’s clear that Kamara is not the type of player who can be the workhorse running back that the Saints intend for him to be. Moving forward, what might they change to maximize his production out of the backfield as a rusher and a receiver?

Well, one thing that may help is the long-awaited return of New Orleans’ star wide receiver Michael Thomas. Since he joined the Saints in 2016, Thomas has broken the top 10 of single-season reception leaders in every full season he has played. In 2019, he set the record for the most receptions in a single season of all time with 149.

In 2020, Thomas only played in seven regular-season games and he’s been out for all of 2021 as he recovers from ankle surgery. Considering the Saints have been missing one of the greatest receivers they’ve ever had and have had to deal with the retirement of the greatest quarterback in franchise history, it’s no wonder they’ve been wary of their own pass attack in 2021.

Whether Thomas will return anytime soon is a different question, as NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport reported last week that he was still a few weeks away from a return. If he does return this year, Thomas will be an incredible additional weapon to New Orleans’ offensive arsenal. A receiver like him could pull the Saints’ passing attack back into competitive shape. That, in turn, could take some of the pressure off Kamara to be the entire New Orleans offense, allowing him to produce the way he has in the past.

Update: The Saints have since traded for Mark Ingram, who returns to the team as Kamara's backfield running mate.

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