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Running Among the Greats; How Alvin Kamara Stacks Up to the Elite

It did not take long for it to become abundantly clear to Saints NFL fans that Alvin Kamara was a special talent. Sean Payton knew Kamara had a unique skillset, trading up in the 3rd round of the 2017 NFL Draft to take him. Despite the early confidence, even Payton underestimated just how good he could be. On the first offensive play for the Saints in their second preseason game against the Los Angeles Chargers in 2017, Kamara ripped off a 50 yard touchdown run and it became obvious that he could be one of the most dangerous offensive threats in the NFL. There was no looking back from there. Well, except on the 28 touchdowns he has scored so far, as he’s looking back at defenders desperately chasing him. Kamara is truly special and we are all blessed to have him in black and gold.

Looking at his stats, I got to thinking and became curious about just how well his stats stack up to some of the best running backs to play in the NFL. I looked at a few of the Hall of Famers, like LaDainian Tomlinson and Marshall Faulk, while also comparing him to Reggie Bush and Deuce McAllister, who are two of the best backs in Saints history. The stats I pulled for each player are from their first two seasons in the league to directly compare to what Kamara had done so far. As for Alvin’s 2018 stats, I took each of categories and averaged them out based on the 12 games he has played so far, then multiplied each stat by 4 (games remaining in the regular season), to get to a 16 game total in which he is on pace for.

Looking at his numbers, I quickly notice three things. First, his usage in his second season has gone way up. Part of that certainly is a result of his increased touches in the first four games of the season when Mark Ingram was suspended, but I also believe that it is clear that Sean Payton’s trust in Kamara continues to grow. Second, his yards per (carry, reception, touch) averages have all gone down by 1.5-2.0 yards a piece, which means that teams are committing more and more to game planning against him. Lastly, despite the yards per averages coming down, they are still ridiculously good. I don’t want to spoil what is yet to come throughout this blog, but let’s just say that even his “lower” average of 5.7 yards per touch this season measures up quite well against the other running backs I looked at.

Now, that you are aware of Kamara’s numbers, we will move on to the other guys. I will cover one player at a time by first adding in their stats table like the one above, then I will do a short summary to point out what stands out. I am going to make it simple and go down the list in order of the years of their first two seasons, with the most recent coming first. With that being said, first up is Todd Gurley. Let’s get to it!

I wanted to include Gurley on this list because despite there being about three or four of them that could be debated as “the best”, my choice would be him and I would guess he would receive the most votes. As the reigning NFL Offensive Player of the Year, Gurley, too, is still improving. He has become more of a factor in the Rams passing game in each of his four seasons, proving to be a true all-around back. As is the case with majority of the players we will talk about today, Gurley total touches are heavily weighted to carries, with receptions only being a small percentage. He, along with every other running back besides Reggie Bush, have 80-90% of their touches be rushes. Kamara and Bush’s touches are only between 60-70%. So, when there is that big of a difference in rushing attempts for two running backs that you are trying to compare, how do you truly get a feel for how they match up? It is simple; the yards per averages. The ability to find the end zone is also a telling stat to refer to. Gurley finds himself well behind Kamara in all three of his yards per averages. He averaged 1.2 yards less per carry, 1.3 yards less per reception, and 2.1 yards less per touch. Gurley scored a touchdown every 35.7 touches in his first two seasons. Kamara? Every 15.2. Now, I know what many of you are thinking at this point. Gurley’s first two seasons in the NFL were under Head Coach Jeff Fisher. His last two seasons (his best two) are under Sean McVay, a much more dynamic offensive mind than Fisher. Kamara has the advantage of Sean Payton from the start, so I ran a few numbers for Gurley’s two seasons with McVay. In 2017-2018, he is averaging 6.0 yards per touch. Still 0.5 yards less than Kamara. His average of a touchdown per every 16.4 touches is also significantly lower, but once again, still gets beaten out by Kamara, who has two less years of experience in the NFL.

Reggie Bush is the most accurate comparison for Alvin Kamara in terms of their usage and balance of touches between carries and receptions. Bush never did run between the tackles as much as Kamara, but the way Sean Payton has used each of them out of the backfield is a mirror image. Reggie was likely the most dynamic running back to put on a Saints uniform prior to Alvin, which is why this comparison was a no brainer. As you can see, Bush struggled rushing the ball in his first two seasons. He was always much more effective as a receiver, setting (and still holding) the record for most receptions by a Saints running back with 88 in his rookie season. He averaged 1.4 yards less per carry, 2.1 yards less per reception, and 1.6 yards less per touch. Reggie scored a touchdown every 33.8 touches, well less than Kamara’s 15.2.

Before I get started with Deuce McAllister, I just wanted to point out that the stats I used are from his second and third seasons in the NFL. Despite playing in all 16 games during his rookie year in 2001, he only received 31 touches. Ricky Williams was still a Saint, I found it odd that a guy that was drafted 23rd overall was given such few touches. Good ole Jim Haslett, I suppose. I first wrote Deuce down to compare numbers simply because he is the Saints all-time leading rusher and he absolutely deserves to be mentioned. It was not until I started jotting down his stats that I realized just how much he was used as a receiver out of the backfield. His 118 receptions are more than four of the all-time greats that we will talk about today. Those were my younger years of Saints fanhood, but his volume of usage in the passing game was a big shocker to me. His 4.5 yards per carry is very impressive, 3rd most of the eight players on this list. The 7.4 yards per reception average is solid, too, but still 1.9 yards less than Kamara. Same thing goes for his yards per touch. Higher than a few others on the list, but not higher than ole Alvin, coming 1.6 yards less. His 25 touchdowns in those two seasons is impressive, but his massive amount of touches makes his average of a touchdown every 31.7 touches a bit inflated. Deuce sits on top of the totem poll in terms of best running back in Saints history, so it is extremely promising to see just how much Alvin Kamara’s numbers dominate. Also, I wanted to give a quick shout out to Mark Ingram, who is just 267 yards behind Deuce for most rushing yards in Saints history. The former Heisman winner is gunning for McAllister’s crown, which I am positive Deuce will gladly hand over.

LaDainian Tomlinson is a great comparison for Alvin Kamara for a few reasons. First, you can see that he caught a lot of passes as a running back, much like Kamara. Second, he was great at scoring touchdowns. LT set (and still holds) the record for most rushing touchdowns (28) and most total touchdowns (31) in a season back in 2006. Kamara already has 28 touchdowns in his first two seasons, more than Tomlinson, and is on pace for 33 with four games left to play. In his record-breaking season in 2006, LT scored a touchdown on every 13.0 touches. Kamara is at 15.2. Put that in to perspective and it should not shock you if he flirts with or even breaks those single season touchdown records with the rate that he already finds the end-zone. Tomlinson’s average during his prime with the Chargers was a touchdown every 22.3 touches.

For the past two seasons, I have racked my brain while trying to find the perfect comparison for who Alvin Kamara reminds me of on the field. Every game, he reminds me of someone different. Scratch that, every PLAY, he reminds me of someone different. He is tough to pinpoint because he does so many different things. With that being said, I feel like Marshall Faulk is one of styles to compare him to. Their bodies are essentially identical, each standing 5’10” and Kamara weighing just four more pounds than Faulk did at 215. With the exception of Faulk’s juke move, where he basically would jump laterally, I see a lot of similarities when it comes to being so hard to tackle. For both guys, getting hands on them barely meant a thing. Being able to shrug off tacklers and make it look effortless in the process is something they have both done plenty. The first defender rarely gets Kamara on the ground, much like Faulk. As for the numbers? Alvin wins, again. While his yards per reception average was just 0.1 behind Kamara, Faulk’s yards per carry was 1.2 yards less and his yards per touch was 2.0 yards less. His touchdown per touches rate is a little lower than the other guys we have talked about, but at 27.3, it is still significantly higher than Alvin’s touchdown every 15.2 touches.

Emmitt Smith was more of a straight up ball carrier than guys like LaDainian Tomlinson and Marshall Faulk, but I simply could not put a list together with some of the greatest running backs of all time and not include the NFL’s all-time leading rusher. Smith and Kamara’s styles are very different, but let’s look at the numbers, anyway. Emmitt’s yards per averages all come in a good bit lower than Alvin’s. He averaged 1.0 yards less per carry, 2.6 yards less per reception, and 2.1 yards less per touch. It took Emmitt 13.1 more touches to get a touchdown, getting one every 28.3.

Rounding out the list, I had to finish things off with probably the most elusive running back to ever play in the NFL. Barry Sanders was an absolute nightmare to try and tackle, especially in the open field by just one player. Although Sanders’ moves were much more of a fast-twitch style, while Kamara’s are very smooth and he looks to just be gliding, both are/were a complete mismatch for defenders. Barry was the only player to come anywhere near Alvin’s numbers in the first two seasons of their careers. Sanders actually has Kamara beat with 0.1 yards more per carry and 3.4 yards more per reception, but all together, he had 0.7 yards less per touch. His average of a touchdown every 19.8 touches is as close as anyone that I covered. You probably have it memorized by now, but Kamara’s is 15.2.

Conclusion
Alvin Kamara is special. There is no other way to put it. I mentioned that finding a player or playstyle to accurately compare him to was nearly impossible and that is because he is unique and doing things in a way that we have never seen before. Barring some sort of career-altering injury, it is hard to fathom how he won’t end up being one of the best to ever play his position and forever be a name that is brought up in conversations like this. He is the most fun player that I have ever watched and that is coming from someone who enjoyed the hell out of watching Reggie Bush play football. Sean Payton deserves all of the credit in the world for finding this guy, while simultaneously making 31 other front offices look foolish for overlooking him. Here’s to a long and successful career for you, Alvin, I can not wait to watch and be along for the ride!