Alvin Kamara needs to have his best year for Saints to pay him big money

Alvin Kamara is set to hit free agency next March, but he’ll need to have his best year for the Saints to pay him big money.

In three NFL seasons, New Orleans Saints running back Alvin Kamara has made the Pro Bowl three times with over 1,300 yards from scrimmage all three seasons. He was also a draft-day steal, in 2017’s third round (No. 67 overall), with the requisite contract that has paid him far below the value he has returned.

Kamara is entering the final year of his rookie contract, and he’s on a long list running backs currently set to hit the free-agent market next March. What looks to be a deep 2021 draft class at the position will surely inform how teams pursue free-agent running backs. Overall, the devaluation of the position around the league makes younger and cheaper the way to go unless you have someone like Christian McCaffrey or even Saquon Barkley.

In a statistical oddity, Kamara has precisely 81 receptions all three seasons of his career. His per touch metrics dropped last year, as he played through knee, ankle and back injuries. He also did not score a touchdown between Week 3 and Week 16, after scoring 18 total touchdowns in 2018 (14 rushing).

Kamara’s value and production as a pass-catcher sets him apart. But if he merely a replaceable cog in the Saints offense, orchestrated by Drew Brees and Sean Payton?

Should the Saints pay Alvin Kamara?

The Saints history here is informative. Payton’s first season as head coach was 2006, with the signing of Brees in free agency to form what has been the perfect marriage of coach and quarterback. They also drafted Reggie Bush second overall in the 2006 draft.

Bush got a six-year, $52.5 million contract as the second overall pick. Before the 2011 season, he was traded to the Miami Dolphins. He would top 1,000 rushing yards in two of the next three seasons, one for Miami and one for Detroit, but he faded quickly after that.

The Saints drafted Mark Ingram 28th overall in the 2011 draft. He was productive while mostly sharing the backfield work, right through a second contract. He had three seasons where he topped 200 carries, as he topped 4.5 yards per carry in five of six seasons from 2013-2018. But when he hit free agency at age-29, with an eye on making Kamara more clearly the lead guy, the Saints easily let Ingram go.

Alongside and at times in place of Kamara last year, Latavius Murray averaged a solid 4.4 yards per carry along with 34 receptions. He’s not as dynamic a talent, but all was not lost as Kamara operated at less than full strength and missed two games in 2019.

WAR (Wins Above Replacement) is most commonly a measure of value for baseball players, compared to an “average” or replacement-level player. But Pro Football Focus has created their version of WAR, and over the last three seasons, Kamara has been one of the most valuable running backs in the league.

There’s another statistical oddity for Kamara–he has yet to reach 900 rushing yards in a season. That’s an easy nod to sharing the backfield and injuries last year, and he has also not reached 200 carries in a season yet. Raw rushing numbers are obviously not the complete picture of Kamara’s talent and impact. But the fact he has not gotten to 900 yards on the ground (let alone 1,000) makes it easy to wonder (positively or negatively) what he would do with a bigger workload.

What Kamara was able to do operating on one leg for a big chunk of last year makes full health an intriguing proposition. But if he’s going to buck the trend get a big contract next March, from the Saints or anyone else, he will have to have the best season of his career in 2020.

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