You don’t pay running backs after their rookie deal. It’s a practice that has seemingly been adopted across the NFL. You pick up a young running back, ride him on a team-friendly deal and then dump him when he’s ready for that lucrative second contract. There are few exceptions to the rule, but exceptions often set the standard in professional football.
Rookie players who prove they’re exceptional are the ones we see making headlines and eventually breaking the bank with lucrative contract extensions. If New Orleans Saints’ running back Alvin Kamara wants to keep his seat at the table in 2020, he’ll need to remind them of his worth. Set to become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season, the do-it-all back will force the Saints to make a difficult decision: Pay him or let him walk.
There is little doubt about Kamara’s value to the Saints’ offense. A true-dual threat in the backfield, he provides both a run and pass option for his team. With a healthy five yards-per-carry career average in three seasons, Kamara has just five career fumbles and has accounted for 27 rushing touchdowns. The ability to shift gears in a heartbeat is what helps him stand out among the other tailbacks. By lulling defenders into bad tackling angles, Kamara has ripped off 71 runs of 10 or more yards. The former Tennessee Volunteer tailback has the numbers to back up the team making a sizable investment in his services.
Just as exciting is Kamara’s value in the passing game. In 2019, only Christian McCaffrey (116) and Austin Ekler (104) had more receptions than Kamara’s 81. With 10 receiving touchdowns to his name, Kamara gives New Orleans a more versatile and unpredictable element. With a running back capable of lining up out wide as a receiving option or zipping out of the backfield, opposing defenses are forced to cover him as they would a regular receiver. And that is where the fun begins for the Saints. Kamara is a mismatch for most linebackers in man coverage and will give inside corners problems with his agility. Alvin Kamara presents a problem to all who oppose him. Hopefully that won’t soon include the Saints.
Kamara was a third-round steal in the 2017 NFL Draft from a talented RB pool that had future stars Joe Mixon and Christian McCaffrey. Kamara will make just over $2.3 million in the final year of his deal with the Saints — a small sum compared to the $64 million extension that McCaffrey signed with the Panthers early this season. That new deal makes Christian McCaffrey the highest paid RB in the NFL, taking home a purse of around $16 million annually. Meanwhile, Kamara has a contract that ranks outside of the top 50 at the position.
Kamara will turn 26 before the projected start of the 2020 NFL regular season. He doesn’t have the same wear and tear that backs across the league carry. Having split the workload with Mark Ingram, Latavius Murray, Dwayne Washington and even Taysom Hill to a degree, Kamara is used to having fresh legs throughout the season. The Saints lack quality depth at running back. Kamara’s versatility brings more value to New Orleans’ backfield than Murray, Washington and rookie Tony Jones Jr. together can offer at this point. But if Kamara truly wants to cash in next offseason, he’ll need to prove his worth to both the team and the community of New Orleans.
The 2020 season could see the Saints transition from an offense centered around quarterback Drew Brees, to one that makes Kamara the face of the future. It’s widely presumed that the 2020-21 season will be the final chapter in the storied career of Saints’ quarterback Drew Brees. Everyone within the organization, as well as outside of it, wants to see Brees walk away with one more shot at a Super Bowl title. The 41-year-old gunslinger will need all the help he can to leave the game on top. That will likely mean a healthy contribution from his teammate lined up at running back. Sure, the Saints made sure to take care of All-Pro receiver Mike Thomas, signing him to a five-year $96 million extension in 2019. But by establishing a capable run game and alternate threat at running back, the Saints can orchestrate numerous mismatches to opposing defenses. Will the Saints look to bring the band back together for the 2021 season?
Kamara is going to have to prove that he’s the exception to the rule. Assuming he doesn’t hold out ahead of the 2020 season, the team could make a good faith offer on a long-term extension to avoid a climbing price tag heading into the next offseason. This option allows the team to keep the salary number in a more affordable range, especially following the McCaffrey deal. On the other hand, the Saints could play the waiting game to see how the market shakes out. It’s unlikely that Kamara will pull the Le’Veon Bell card and sit out a season to get to free agency. The Saints could also see what shakes out between the Cincinnati Bengals and their feature back Joe Mixon. New Orleans could crunch the numbers to figure out the cost of slapping the franchise tag on their star tailback as well.
The big party won’t begin until the check is in the bank for the Saints’ running back. Many of us — if not all — believe that we’re underpaid and overworked. No position symbolizes that saying more than running backs in the NFL. The tread of any offense, they’re often treated like a set of tires: Used until there’s no traction left, then disregarded for a fresh set. Alvin Kamara represents the shiny new sports tire that can start and stop in the blink of an eye. He deserves to be paid his true market value as an elite running back. How else are teams supposed to cultivate that show-stopping ability from promising players? The Saints might be acting on tradition, but times are a-changin’. It’s a matter of when, not if, Kamara gets paid.