The Case for Kamara: Why You Can Lean on Alvin in 2018

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A lot has been made of Alvin Kamara‘s other-worldly 2017 season.  Super Kamario was electric, scoring the third most fantasy points at the running back position behind Todd Gurley and Le’Veon Bell in PPR leagues.  He put up gaudy numbers despite only 120 attempts, with every other RB in the top 9 carrying the ball at LEAST 230 times (Gurley and Bell had 279 and 321 attempts, respectively).

The lynchpin of Kamara’s mind-blowing season was an unparalleled assault on the end zone by way of huge yards-per-touch totals.  Kamara scored 13 times on 201 total touches and averaged 7.7 yards per touch.  This wasn’t simply a “good” number; this was a record-setting number. It’s the highest single-season rate of production among all players with at least 200 touches in NFL history.  You read that right.

When a player bursts onto the fantasy landscape with record-breaking numbers, fantasy owners love to bend the narrative in a number of directions.  On the podcast, we’ve debated the sustainability of such production many times.  Kamara will no doubt be a hot topic come the 2018 fantasy football draft season, with some buying into the fanfare and others shying away in anticipation of inevitable regression to the mean.  You can’t break the single-season yards per touch record every year.

I want to take a few moments to look deeper at Kamara’s season as well as his running mate Mark Ingram. When a rookie comes on the scene, essentially there is a progression of how the team views the rookie, which plays out in their marketshare (touches, Snap percentages, etc.) Let’s dive a little deeper into Alvin’s incredible 2017 and make the case for another great season in 2018.

Note: This article does not seek to make a case against Mark Ingram in 2018.  The two should form a formidable backfield once more, with both players highly valued in fantasy.  The question we’re looking at is whether Kamara will be able to produce to the degree he did last season by way of total fantasy points, validating his place in the top of the first round in 2018 drafts.

Snaps & Touches: The Tale of 2017

The 2017 season began with a trifecta of backfield mates in New Orleans.  The often dogged incumbent (Ingram) was joined by the electric rook (Kamara) and future HOF (Peterson).  Peterson was shipped out of town to Arizona shortly after the season began, so for purposes of seeing how the season progressed for Kamara and Ingram, we’ve omitted him from these charts.  Let’s first take a glance at how the snap percentages and total touch count evolved over the course of 2017.

Note: I chose to omit week 14 from the charts below, as Kamara was concussed early in the first quarter and the game did not represent a fair breakdown of how the Saints viewed their backfield distribution.  The charts do include both postseason games.

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As you can see from the charts above, confidence in Kamara and his ability to be a foundational element of the offense grew as the season progressed.  With every fantasy football stud, talent and opportunity reign supreme.  Through Week 10 of the season, Ingram had out-touched Kamara 175 to 106.  From Week 11 on Kamara and Ingram were basically dead even, with 117 and 118 touches respectively.  Kamara migrated from an ancillary and selective weapon into a pure timeshare back.

Just Plain Better

Let’s take a look at the incredible yards per attempt number that Kamara managed to put up in 2017.  Kamara was vastly more efficient than Ingram, and this fact led to the increase in snap percentages as well as total touch distribution evening out.

I didn’t want to sell Mark Ingram short on this point, however.  Ingram’s role as a bruising late-game clock killer could certainly have a major impact on his yards per attempt totals.  I didn’t want to simply give the nod of efficiency to Kamara because he wasn’t forced into a role that ended up with a handful of game-ending dives into the pile.  So I took a look at efficiency on a quarter by quarter basis, allowing us to look at how the backfield mates truly performed even if you threw that fourth-quarter clock-killing time out.

It was no contest.  Kamara was just plain better.  Keep in mind the chart above is yards per attempt ONLY – just carries, and doesn’t even consider the flexibility and incredible receiving and big-play ability Kamara brings to the table.

Kamara’s out-of-this-world efficiency wasn’t lost on head coach Sean Payton, who especially prioritized Kamara’s usage in the postseason. Kamara was on the field for 65% of snaps in both postseason games, with Ingram grabbing just 27% of the load.  When push came to shove, Kamara was Payton’s choice.  This became more and more evident as the season progressed.

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Why It Matters in 2018

I don’t expect Alvin Kamara to be able to repeat his insane 7.7 per touch totals in 2018, it would be foolish and naive to think so.  I do expect him to bring you top 5 RB value, and here’s why: Kamara’s usage and attempts will compensate for any lack of efficiency in 2018.

Let’s go so far as to take 30% away from his 7.7 per touch total from 2017, and give him an estimated 5.39 yards per touch in 2018.  If you gave him that number in 2017, he’d have finished with just under 1100 total yards instead of the 1550+ he put up, which would put him well outside the top 5 at the RB position.

Now let’s project an increase in touches simply matching his second-half utilization.  Instead of 201 total touches (120 rush attempts and 81 receptions) let’s give him his second half projection and put him at 90 receptions and 160 total attempts on the ground, for a touch total of 250. That’s still WELL below the touch totals of the league’s top backs (Gurley 343, Bell 406, Hunt 325, Gordon 342) and you end up with a season just under 1400 total yards.  Depending on the smattering of touchdowns you receive, he’d be right back in the top 5 PPR range.

I love the room you have with Kamara in terms of upside.  What if his efficiency stays closer to 6 per touch or higher?  What if he receives just 80% of the touches Gurley receives and ends up in the 280 range instead of 250?  What if the snap count percentages in the playoffs actually come to bear on the regular season?  In PPR formats or 1/2 PPR formats, Kamara is just plain safe.  Fears of grand regression should be consider quelled by the increase of usage, snap % and total touches as the season and playoffs progressed.  Alvin is a trustworthy top 5 RB in 2018.

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