Can Alvin Kamara bounce back in 2020?

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Can Alvin Kamara bounce back from a disappointing season or is there cause for concern for fantasy owners in 2020?


2019 Season

Rushing Stats

At first, Kamara didn’t appear to be any different from the previous two years. So why were most of his fantasy owners so disappointed? On the surface, his statistics appear to mirror the previous two years’ production. Diving down deeper into these rushing numbers starts to tell a different story.  His total rushes for first downs were down by half of what they were the previous year. Kamara’s yards per game decreased on average compared to his 2018 campaign.  And his total rushing yards on the season also fell into decline.

Touchdown Regression

The most glaring stat though was his lack of touchdowns in both the rushing and passing game. Kamara only scored 6 total touchdowns in 2019 (5 rushing/ 1 receiving), the fewest of his career. To better understand this dramatic downturn you have to examine his red zone opportunities last season. Kamara only had 27 attempts in the red zone in 2019. This included one abysmal stretch between weeks 6-10 where he failed to get a single RZ carry.

By comparison, in 2018, Kamara had 52 red zone opportunities. During that year he had an impressive 25% touchdown conversion rate. Very simply, the more chances running back has in the red zone, the more touchdowns they are likely to score.  The touchdown regression explains why Kamara fell short of many people’s fantasy expectations last season.

Receiving Stats

Entering last year, Kamara was seen as one of the two best dual-threat RB’s in the NFL along with Christian McCaffrey. McCaffery went on to have an MVP caliber season with historic fantasy production while Kamara disappointed many owners. You would be hard-pressed to find many championship teams with Kamara as their top pick. For the third straight year, Kamara finished with 81 total receptions. But in these 3 years, his receiving yards and yards per reception have continued to decline.  In fact, Kamara only averaged 6.6 yds/rec with only 1 TD in 2019. Many of these 81 receptions were also not the sort of explosive plays we have come to expect from the Tennessee product.

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Yards before and after contact

There are many reasons to explain the overall fantasy decline in 2019.  The one stat that stands out in relation to his receiving numbers is that in 2019 Kamara’s overall receiving yards before contact was negative 24 yards compared to 67  positive yards in 2018. This demonstrates that instead of being used to stretch the field and take advantage of mismatches he was asked to catch the ball behind the line of scrimmage. Instead of taking advantage of his obvious superiority over most linebackers forced to cover him, he was turned into a safety valve when a play broke down. With a weapon as versatile as Kamara, this was poor utilization of his skill-set. Kamara must be put in a better position to make downfield, explosive plays, if he is to return the investment fantasy players, will have to pony up to draft him in 2020.

2019 in Review

Brees Injury

These statistics demonstrate why 2019 was a speedbump in his young career but there are many factors to blame. We have to take a look at other mitigating factors that played a part in his decline in productivity. Obviously the biggest storyline of the 2019 season for this Saints team was the thumb injury to Drew Brees in the second game of the season against the Rams. Even though the Saints proceeded to win the next 5 games with Teddy Bridgewater at the helm, it took a toll on Kamara’s production.  The Saints went into a conservative offensive game plan during this five-game stretch. Because they wanted to minimize as many mistakes as possible, they chose to lean on their defense and special teams to win games.

This formula proved to be successful as they went 5-0 without Brees at the helm. But by seasons end they ended up ranking 9th in the NFL in total offense. For an offense that is usually one of the top offenses, this was a noticeable downturn. When you lose your Hall of Fame QB for a large part of the year, it’s going to negatively affect most offensive players’ production. The absence of Brees was not only the only hurdle, injury-wise, but the Saints also had to juggle in 2019.

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Offensive Line struggles

The best friend of any running back is stability on the offensive line and the Saints have had of the better starting units in the NFL.  Max Unger‘s retirement in the offseason was a blow to the unit’s cohesion as they were forced to start a rookie at center. The unit as a whole also had to battle a myriad of injuries as T. Armstead and A. Peat combined to miss 8 games. The absence of your Pro Bowl guard and tackle for half the season is not ideal, and the Saints played musical chairs just to set a lineup.

Injuries and Unsettled Backfield

Alvin Kamara also fell victim to the injury when he suffered a high ankle sprain in week 6 against Jacksonville. This forced him to miss the following game and lingered throughout the rest of the 2019 campaign. Kamara never looked fully 100% from that point and he later admitted that he was only playing at 75% for most of the season. The Saints have always managed Kamara’s snaps since he came into the league because they had Mark Ingram to share the load. When Mark Ingram signed with Baltimore fantasy owners expected that Kamara would see an uptick in usage. This was not the case as he averaged fewer overall touches. The Saints also struggled to fully integrate Latavius Murray into the backfield which had a noticeable effect on Kamara’s workload.

A turnaround in Sight?

Stability on the Offensive Line

So the big question is was 2019 a harbinger of decline or was this just a speedbump in a young career?  I believe there should be optimism that Kamara can get back to the RB1 status he showed in his first two seasons.  He should continue to be one of the most explosive and dynamic running backs in the NFL this season. The first reason to expect a bounce-back in 2020 is that the Saints will be the return of all 5 starters on the offensive line. The Saints managed this by retaining Andrus Peat on a new 5-year contract extension.

Center Erik McCoy will be entering his second season more experienced and battle-tested after an up and down rookie campaign. This relative continuity on the offensive line is no small feat in the era of free agency. If the offensive line can avoid any major injuries this unit should continue to be an anchor point for this offense for years to come.

Help on the Way

The Saints have signed free agent wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders to a 2-year deal. This signing fills a massive void that was evident in the Saints offense. When teams focused on shutting down both Mike Thomas and Kamara last year, the Saints struggled to move the ball.  The rest of the supporting Saints receivers were just not able to pick up the slack unlike in previous years. Having a bonafide WR2 in Sanders gives the Saints another much-needed playmaker.

Sanders can work out of the slot and create mismatches of his own. This will help open up running and passing lanes for Kamara and Murray in the running game. Kamara should also benefit in the passing game as well. This will free him up to make more plays downfield stretching the defense and taking advantage of defensive mismatches.

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So what does it all mean for 2020?

While many of Kamara’s statistics were down, 2019 was not a complete disaster. Kamara did show some growth fighting through many of the challenges he faced last season.  Kamara’s rushing yards per attempt were up slightly and he also posted the best catch rate of his career at 83.5%. This is key as it shows he still has an elite pass-catching ability. One of Kamara’s best abilities is his ability to break tackles and make defenders miss. Even while slowed by injury, he still broke more tackles in both the passing and rushing game than ever before.

Summary

Looking forward to this season it’s clear Kamara still has the ability to be a top-flight RB1. If he can see an increase in Red Zone opportunities I can see Kamara posting 10 rushing touchdowns and 14-15 total TDs in this offense. The Saints will return its Hall of Fame quarterback, record-setting wide receiver and entire offensive line. Combined with the upgrade at the WR2 position the Saints should be much more explosive this year.

The Saints are once again going all-in with a Super Bowl or bust mentality. Barring another catastrophic injury, the Saints should get back to the high octane offense they are known for.  Kamara should follow suit by making fantasy football owners happy once again in 2020.  With a current ADP of 6.5,  I believe Kamara can be a bit of a value going forward in 2020 and worth a first-round pick.


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