Few players across football have burst on to the national scene in the last year like Saints rookie running back Alvin Kamara. The 67th pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, Kamara was initially passed over by the Saints before they traded up to get back into the 3rd round while he remained on the board. The metro Atlanta native would go on to have a historic season, totaling 1,554 yards from scrimmage (7.7 yards per touch, an NFL record for players with 200+ touches) and 15 touchdowns en route to winning Offensive Rookie of the Year and second team All-Pro honors.
Kamara was such a revelation that the he's been bandied about as a new running back archetype and used as justification for the acquisition and rising value of versatile backs throughout the NFL. As is the case with any player who emerges to this degree, a dissection of his attributes and career arc proves to be a necessary and worthwhile exercise.
So how was Kamara, who was admittedly undervalued by the team that drafted him and wasn't the primary ballcarrier in either of his two seasons at Tennessee, this good as a rookie? Close inspection of his career dating back to his prep days as a touted prospect at Norcross High School through his year in junior college reveal a unique skillset that is highly translatable to all levels of football.
Kamara is an example of the value of the total athletic profile as opposed to a strict emphasis on the 40-yard dash (though still highly valuable). Additionally, while some felt he was a slot receiver as a high school prospect, he consistently weighed north of 190 pounds dating back to his junior season.
Verified high school testing results: 5'10" 192 pounds, 4.55 second 40-yard dash, 4.28 second short shuttle, 39.1 inch vertical jump.
NFL Combine/Pro Day: 5'10" 208 pounds, 4.53 second 40-yard dash, 4.35 second short shuttle, 39.5 inch vertical jump, 10.92 foot broad jump.
While he's never run verified a 40-yard dash time better than 4.53 seconds, Kamara has always shown twitch and short area explosion by way of the jump tests. His SPARQ score was good for 4th best among running backs in the 2017 draft class (83rd percentile of NFL backs). Kamara tested as a better athlete than the four backs that were picked ahead of him-Leonard Fournette, Christian McCaffrey, Dalvin Cook and Joe Mixon.
Even with his head-scratching lack of touches at Tennessee, Kamara has proven to be highly efficient at all levels. He's never averaged less than 5.8 yards per carry in high school, junior college, college or the NFL- a direct result of the ability to maximize the yards gained on every touch. Kamara has also been a touchdown machine over the course of his career. He's averaged 1.4 scores per game and one touchdown every 11.2 touches over the course of his last five seasons of football.
Kamara forced enough missed tackles in 2017 to register Pro Football Focus' highest elusive rating in over a decade. While he hits the marks from an athletic perspective, it's the advanced skill as a runner that separates him from the pack.
Watch Kamara in high school and junior college and you'll find that he made cuts with one sole purpose: getting upfield as quickly as possible. Other gifted runners will often dance and unnecessarily cut horizontally across the field taking advantage of the the talent gap at those levels. Rarely do those runs translate to college and the NFL. This might not make for the flashiest highlight tape on the high school level, but is a prime reason why a runner like Kamara saw such immediate success in the NFL.
As you can see in the plays below, Kamara's focus was on quick, economical cuts followed by an immediate burst upfield.
Vision and Feet
A key component of Kamara's effectiveness is his ability to stress a defense on the inside and outside. These plays help keep the defense honest by forcing the linebackers and safeties to account for the threat of an inside run. Kamara reads the blocks, gets skinny in the hole and picks his way through the line before exploding upfield at the first sign of daylight.
The Saints and head coach Sean Payton did an outstanding job getting Kamara in space by way of screens and angle routes out of the backfield. Once in the open field, he's able to use peripheral vision and natural instincts (or what Kamara refers to as "Matrix mode") to read the angles of incoming defenders and maximize the yardage gained.
Kamara doesn't require screens to get to the edge. He can use his quickness and burst to get to the perimeter on sweeps and outside zone runs with relative ease. The ability to finish with cutbacks and start-stop sequences is yet another special skill.
Contact Balance and Body Lean
For a prospect who has always been considered an "all-purpose" and speed back, Kamara has shown an increasing knack for running through arm tackles and keeping his feet moving on contact. He runs low and behind his pads. We often say backs with desirable contact balance "fall forward" and that applies to Kamara.
Drew Brees credits Kamara's tackle breaking ability to his penchant for staying low and anchored.
"That's a rare talent. That's how you break tackles. Because you're using the ground as extra force to shed guys," Brees told ESPN. "Obviously he's extremely athletic, he's extremely talented. But there's a gift when -- there's guys like that around the league, certain guys that you just say, 'What makes that guy so good?' Or so good [running] after the catch or breaking tackles or what have you. And a lot of times it's guys that keep their feet on the ground."
Physicality and Fearlessness
Kamara is measured and calculated in his reads and cuts. Those tendencies don't come at the expense of a physical edge as he will embrace contact, often being the one who is delivering the punishment when necessary.
In October, Kamara made headlines when he hurdled first team All-Pro cornerback Darius Slay. But that wasn't the first time he leapt over a defender in an NFL stadium.
Here he is leaping over a defender in the 2012 Georgia Class 6A state championship against Lovejoy High School in the Georgia Dome.
The high-end combination of quickness, agility, balance, power and toughness makes Kamara a unique offensive threat- to the point where it is unrealistic to expect the breadth of the skillset to be replicated by other players. While his emerging skill as a downfield pass catcher significantly adds to his versatility, it's the noted ability to create yardage, particularly on the perimeter and at the second level that drives opposing coordinators and defenders to wit's end. Do a quick scan of the videos above and watch the defenses. "Yakety Sax" would be an apt soundtrack for clips of NFL defenders trying to tackle the rookie.
Kamara's ease of translation across multiple levels of competition-in Georgia's highest prep classification and a tough junior college league- should have been an ideal filter for assessing his skills. It was for the recruiting industry which had him pegged as a top 50 prospect out of high school and as a borderline five-star in junior college. Despite the malpractice level of misuse at Tennessee, he is a case of advanced skills and athleticism ultimately rising to the top and serves as an example of true versatility from the running back position.