This Running Back Is the NFL's Most Productive Player … Ever
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As a rookie, the New Orleans Saints’ Alvin Kamara swiftly broke the NFL’s efficiency record. What’s in store for him in Year 2?
By Michelle Bruton and Sean Culligan
On a play just before halftime of the New Orleans Saints’ Week 1 matchup against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, New Orleans running back Alvin Kamara is split out wide as a receiver. He breaks back to the formation suddenly as quarterback Drew Brees hits him for a short reception five yards past the line of scrimmage. Using his trademark elusiveness, however, Kamara weaves past defenders and turns the play into a 23-yard gain before he’s finally brought down. The Bucs defenders simply seem powerless to stop him.
The Saints may have lost that game, but they did so despite Kamara, who is proving as effective in his sophomore season as he was in his rookie year. The NFL is in the midst of an offensive renaissance, with more and more teams going to spread-style formations that allow pass catchers to put up numbers that would have once been thought impossible. And this brave new passing world isn’t exclusive to wide receivers and tight ends. In fact, it’s a running back — Kamara — who sits atop the ranks of the NFL’s most productive players.
Kamara’s 7.7 yards per touch on average in 2017 is the best single-season mark ever set among all NFL positions.
Among all NFL players who have amassed at least 200 touches in a single season, Kamara blew everyone away in 2017, with 1,554 total yards on 120 carries and 81 receptions. Not only was he one of the league’s more productive runners, ranking second among all halfbacks with 6.1 yards per attempt, but he was the most efficient receiver out of the backfield, averaging 10.2 yards per reception.
How does he do it? “He has the speed and quickness, which is apparent, but what really makes him unique is he has exceptional balance, which makes him very difficult to tackle,” says NFL analyst Andy Benoit of the MMQB. That elusiveness was what undid the Bucs defenders on the play in Week 1.
It’s that versatility — threatening through the air and on the ground — that has elevated Kamara to this lofty position. It’s also a function of how he was able to achieve this milestone at all. No pure receiver has ever reached 200 touches in a single season; the Indianapolis Colts’ Marvin Harrison came closest in 2002, when he amassed 143 receptions that year. The NFL’s most productive player, then, was always bound to be a dual-threat running back — but none of them has ever had a season like Kamara’s.
And no one may again for a long, long time. The last time an NFL player was this productive was in 1965, when Philadelphia’s Timmy Brown averaged 7.4 yards per touch.
Alvin Kamara averaged 7.7 yards per offensive touch this season, which was the highest single-season rate among players with at least 200 touches in NFL history. pic.twitter.com/QFdB8PGdq4
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 7, 2018
To be sure, even Kamara himself could struggle to approach his own mark this season. Last year, he was part of a one-two punch in the backfield with Mark Ingram, who sat out the first four games of the Saints’ season to serve a suspension for violating the NFL’s performance-enhancing drug policy.
“It’s much harder to be hyperefficient on a big workload,” says Pro Football Focus senior fantasy analyst Scott Barrett, who suggests Kamara’s efficiency from last year is unsustainable.
And yet, even with Ingram out through the first quarter of this season, the Saints have not backed down on their usage of Kamara. Heading into Week 4, he’s amassed the most receiving yards of any halfback, with 289. And he’s easily leading all running backs in targets per game, with 12.7.
“When you watch [the Saints’] scripted plays, typically their first 15 of the game, Kamara usually touches the ball on about half of them, which is an incredibly high number,” explains Benoit. New Orleans clearly sees Kamara as the centerpiece of its offense. But it would be surprising for that trend to continue. “I don’t know if he’s someone you want touching the ball 25 times a game,” Benoit says. “My guess is they don’t know that yet either.”
Can anyone top Kamara’s 7.7 yards per touch figure from 2017? At this point, it seems the only player even capable of coming close … is him.