New Orleans Saints transition to the Alvin Kamara Era

Every tenure must come to an end, and Mark Ingram's 8-year journey with the New Orleans Saints concluding is another part of that. With Kamara now front and center, it is a new era in The Big Easy.

Running back is a fickle position in the NFL when it comes to judging talent. Plenty of RBs are overvalued entering the league, the likes of Trent Richardson and Cadillac Williams come to mind. However, some are taken early, and they show their value immediately, such as Saquon Barkley of the New York Giants or Ezekiel Elliot of the Dallas Cowboys.

There is also a third group of running backs that are undervalued and end up being diamonds in the rough. They are overlooked because of what school they went to, their size, and a whole host of other issues, but in turn, they shed those expectations and prove to be a deadly force on the field. New Orleans Saints’ Alvin Kamara is one of the guys in the last group.

Drafted in the third round of the 2017 NFL draft, Kamara was the fifth RB to come off the board. Kamara completely changed the gameplan within the backfield for the Saints, and while the transition has been taking place over the past two years, the departure of Mark Ingram will even further change the landscape in New Orleans.

University of Tennessee Volunteers

Kamara started his college journey at the University of Alabama. However, due to knee surgery in the preseason, he was redshirted as a true freshman. He was then unable to earn playing time competing as part of a class containing former Heisman winner Derrick Henry, as well as T.J. Yeldon, and Kenyan Drake.

In 2014 Kamara transferred to Hutchinson Community College in Kansas and finally played his first season of college football. In nine games with the Blue Dragons, Kamara ran for 1,211 yards, averaging 135 yards per game, along with finding the endzone 21 times. Regarded as one of the top JUCO prospects in the nation, he was recruited by Tennessee and the Georgia Bulldogs before ultimately signing on to play for Butch Jones and the Volunteers.

Kamara would play 25 games across two seasons for Tennessee. While the stats do not pop off the page based on his competition in the SEC, there were some signs his play style could project well to the NFL. In 2015, Kamara ran for 698 yards with an average of 6.5-yards per rush. During the 2016 season, Kamara finished third in the SEC in touchdowns. He started just one-third of the games he played at Tennessee, due to a timeshare with Jalen Hurd, but he amassed 2,000 yards from scrimmage and averaged a touchdown per game during his time in Knoxville.

The End of the Mark Ingram era for the New Orleans Saints

Kamara completed nearly every drill at the NFL combine. On top of that, he posted the highest Wonderlic test score, 24, out of all the running backs who completed the test. To begin the 2017 season, the Saints were trying to balance a three-headed monster in the backfield. Mark Ingram was starting his seventh season in New Orleans, 2012 NFL MVP Adrian Peterson coming back from a knee injury, and the rookie Kamara. The first few weeks did not go as planned. Juggling three backs proved to be a bit too much, and through four games, Peterson had rushed for 81 total yards. The Saints traded Peterson to the Arizona Cardinals on October 10, 2017, and the fun began.

With two clear contributors to the run game, an even split was more viable. While Ingram was getting a majority of carries, Kamara was receiving more passes out of the backfield. Kamara finished the season with 728 rushing yards and 826 receiving yards. He averaged 6.07 yards per rush, the most ever by an NFL rookie. Kamara and Ingram would become the first duo of running backs to both reach 1500+ yards from scrimmage. Finally, Kamara was awarded the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year award for his spectacular performance.

The 2018 season played out slightly different due to the fact Ingram was suspended for the first four games of the season. Kamara would have another marvelous season rushing for 883 yards along with 709 receiving yards. His yards per rush was down a yard an a half at 4.6, but he would carry the ball 74 more times than in 2017. The first four weeks were somewhat challenging as Kamara was the go-to option for a more extended period than he was used to. However, as the weeks went on and Ingram came back, it seemed as though there was a changing of the guard as Kamara slowly took the starting role from the longtime Saints running back.

The 2019 Offseason and the start of the Kamara Era

I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating, the Saints made a clear statement about the future of the team when they signed Latavius Murray with Ingram still available in free agency. While Murray is no Ingram, New Orleans invested in a running back to support Kamara as opposed to the complementary system they had used the two years prior.

Mark Ingram was going to get paid for what he brings to a team, and being honest; he landed in the next best spot behind New Orleans, the Baltimore Ravens. The Saints, who live in a constant cap limbo, obviously were concerned about the money Ingram would be offered and decided to go a different route. Murray has served his purpose as the number two guy for a good portion of his career. He does not have the same type of power that Ingram uses to breach through the line of scrimmage, but he is a force within the red zone.

New Orleans does not need Murray to be the same running back as Ingram was. This is the Saints attempt to give Kamara the starting role while also having a substantial and reliable back up. I don’t think Kamara is an every-down back, and that is A-OK. If Kamara were in that role, due to his size and play style, it would be asking for more injuries. But, what gets lost in that translation is that Kamara does not need to be an every-down back to succeed the way he does in the NFL. He’s burning DBs such as Malcolm Jenkins like it is slight work, showing he can also be a legitimate receiver on top of his rushing abilities in the clip below.

In 2017 Kamara touched the ball 201 times (not including kick returns) and accounted for 1,554 yards and 13 touchdowns. On the flip side, Ingram touched the ball 288 times and accounted for 1,540 yards and 12 touchdowns. Kamara’s touches took a sharp increase in 2018 due to Ingram’s suspension, but it only affected his rushing attempts, and he produced six more rushing touchdowns than his rookie season.

Kamara is the first player in NFL history to have 1,000 rushing and receiving yards in his first 20 games. The Saints have taken notice and want the rushing game to go through him, while also use his incredible playmaking skills in space to continue their offensive dominance in the NFL. Gone are the days of the bull rush as Kamara is primed to bring more versatility and mind-blowing plays to the field for the foreseeable future.

Zachary Knerr is a writer for PFN covering the New Orleans Saints. You can follow him @ZachKnerr on Twitter.

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