NFL draft steal: Saints' Alvin Kamara among the best, even in loaded RB draft class

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Each week during the 2021 season, we'll examine our NFL draft steal of the week — a younger player whose NFL success has surpassed where he was drafted. We'll try to look back at the why and how of where they were selected and what we thought of that prospect prior to the draft.

Tennessee RB Alvin Kamara

New Orleans Saints
5-foot-10, 215 pounds
2017 NFL draft: Round 3, No. 67 overall

Alvin Kamara suffered a knee injury in the Saints' 27-25 loss to the Atlanta Falcons in Week 9 and then promptly missed the following four games. The Saints lost all four.

There might not be much of a call for "RB Wins" becoming a viable metric in the analytics realm, but it's clear the Saints are a far different team — especially given their quarterback situation — with and without Kamara in the lineup.

And when he returned to the field last week, the Saints had no designs on easing him back into the lineup. Kamara played 50 snaps and was given the ball a whopping 31 times — 27 carries for 120 yards and a touchdown, along with four receptions for 25 yards. New Orleans beat the New York Jets, 30-9.

New Orleans Saints running back Alvin Kamara returned from injury to crush the Jets last week. (AP Photo/Adam Hunger)
New Orleans Saints running back Alvin Kamara returned from injury to crush the Jets last week. (AP Photo/Adam Hunger)

"I knew Alvin would be in good shape because he's been training," Saints head coach Sean Payton said. "He gave us some real good juice and energy. He always does."

The Saints have averaged 18.3 points per game and 98 rush yards without him in the lineup — and are 0-4. They've averaged 25.7 points and 131.9 rush yards when he's on the field and have a record of 6-3. He's one of the most valuable backs in the entire NFL, especially now.

Drew Brees retired. Michael Thomas had surgery, wiping out his 2021 season. Then Jameis Winston and Taysom Hill both got hurt along the way. It has been a Kamara-or-bust kind of offense in a lot of ways this season.

And it's not as if he hasn't been a significant cog for some time now. Kamara led the NFL in offensive touchdowns in 2020 with 21 — 16 rushing and five receiving. In 69 career games, he's scored 67 TDs, along with four two-point conversions.

With six more touchdowns, he'll surpass Marques Colston as the Saints' franchise leader. He's also fifth in team history in rush yards and 12th all-time in receiving yards. All at the age of 26 with just over 1,200 career touches.

But Kamara slid to the early part of Round 3 in the 2017 draft, a development that looks worse by the day now. How did it happen? We look back at his arc as a prospect and why other backs were selected ahead of him.

Why did Alvin Kamara slip in the draft?

Knowing what we know now, Kamara should have gone higher than 67th overall. Even in an era where running backs have been devalued, he's clearly proven to be a first-round talent.

But was his fall to 67 all that offensive? Maybe, but maybe not. Consider the strength of that 2017 draft class at running back. It's arguably one of the best RB crops we've seen in years.

LSU's Leonard Fournette and Stanford's Christian McCaffrey were arguably the two most roundly beloved backs by scouts, although some favored the talent of Florida State's Dalvin Cook, Oklahoma's Joe Mixon and Kamara.

Fournette and McCaffrey were off the board in the draft's first eight overall picks. Cook, Mixon and Kamara were complex evaluations for some teams that grappled with varying degrees of character concerns for each. (Then again, there also were character worries about Fournette, and the Jaguars didn't hesitate making him the fourth overall pick.)

Alvin Kamara was a star at Tennessee despite only touching the ball 301 times in two college seasons. (Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire/Corbis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Alvin Kamara was a star at Tennessee despite only touching the ball 301 times in two college seasons. (Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire/Corbis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The worries with Mixon, who was videotaped hitting a woman, were the most outwardly troublesome. But he was drafted 48th overall, just seven spots behind Cook, who also took a hit following some poor NFL combine workouts.

So being the fifth back selected was no major slight for Kamara; he just happened to come out in a year with unusual talent at the position. From 2012 to 2021, the average draft position for RB5 has been 73.1, which is just behind where Kamara landed at No. 67.

The biggest concerns for Kamara coming out might have been a so-so 40-yard dash (4.56 seconds), ball security (five fumbles in 301 college touches) and a history of knee injuries. There also was the incident of Kamara being asked to take out his nose ring by one team (which Kamara refused to do, he said).

How we viewed Kamara as a prospect

We really liked Kamara coming out, despite his small sample size in two years at Tennessee, making him our No. 31 overall prospect in the 2017 draft.

Our summation:

Kamara has three-down potential in the NFL for teams that seek well-rounded backs, especially those that are not enamored with bigger backs or those with elite speed.

We can't claim to suggest we knew Kamara would become one of the game's most dynamic players — we'd have placed him even higher — but we'll take credit for making him one of our 32 best players, regardless of position.

Future forecast

It's absurd to look at that 2017 RB draft class now, even with McCaffrey — the NFL's highest-paid back in average salary per year — battling injuries the past two seasons.

Mixon leads the NFL in carries this season and is second in rush yards and TDs. Cook is third in rush yards despite playing only 10 games. Fournette, who helped the Bucs win the Super Bowl, is ninth in rush yards and tied for seventh in rushing TDs.

Kamara is down the list a bit at 19th, but playing nine games hurts him. We also can't measure his true value without considering his receiving contributions.

To that end, Kamara is 13th among NFL backs in yards from scrimmage this season (despite playing three or four fewer games than almost everyone ahead of him on that list). Also, since 2017, Kamara is second in the entire NFL only to Ezekiel Elliot in yards from scrimmage and first in total touchdowns.

How long a career will he have? That's hard to say.

Prior to this season, he'd only missed four games over four seasons, so durability really hasn't been an issue until recently. At age 26, Kamara should have four or five more quality seasons at the minimum, barring injuries and workload catching up to him.

And if the Saints — who have Kamara under contract through 2025 — continue to play with sub-Brees level quarterbacks for the next few seasons, Kamara's value to them cannot be overstated, we believe.

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