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Exploring the factors in Alvin Kamara’s “down” receiving year

Breaking down the tape to understand AK’s receiving production.

New Orleans Saints v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Because Alvin Kamara had a phenomenal start to his career, his 2019 production raised some questions. While he was on par with his per carry numbers (4.7 in 2019, 4.6 in 2018), his year was widely referred to as “underwhelming.” Some hypothesized that his lack of numbers, particularly in regards to scoring touchdowns, had to do with any litany of causes including injury, heartache after the departure of Mark Ingram, and some even challenging whether or not he still cared at all - which is honestly a wild accusation.

Kamara has appeared on podcasts such as Rapsheet + Friends and has acknowledged his down season. He most often attributes it to injury and discomfort.

Toward the end of the season, that looked to be exactly the case as he started to look a bit more like himself scoring four touchdowns on the ground over the final two weeks of the regular season. He also seemed pretty confident in his recovery just ahead that final two game stretch.

However, even in the Titans game where he scored twice, Kamara was most recognized first for an uncanny play in which he took a reception out of bounds even though he had about 10 yards of green grass ahead of him. That play alone got me to wondering how after he saw that kind of real estate at all in the season, and whether or not defenses finally started to adjust to his play. If defenses were finally figuring out a way to contain Kamara, that would be a clear explanation for his dip in production, especially in the passing game.

With that curiosity in hand, I watched every one of his 81 receptions from 2018 and 2019 to see if there was any difference in the average yardage of depth from nearest downfield defender, his average depth of target, and how that information may inform us as we dive into a 2019 that felt different from the 2017 Offensive Rookie of the Year.

Carolina Panthers v New Orleans Saints Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

Here are my findings in regards to average air yardage, yards after catch, and depth of nearest defender for over the past two seasons.

AK 2018/19 Avg Receiving Yardage Breakdown

Season Avg. Depth of Target Average YAC Avg. Depth of Defender
Season Avg. Depth of Target Average YAC Avg. Depth of Defender
2018 0.82716049 7.92592593 4.08641975
2019 -0.3950617 7.14814815 4.72839506

Despite my initial assumption, Kamara actually had over a half yard (almost .7) more distance between him and nearest downfield defender on average in 2019 than he did in 2018. However, you can see nearly the same difference the opposite direction in his YAC in 2019 than the previous year. Meaning that while he was given more room to work, on average he was picking up fewer yards after the catch.

The other factor to consider here is the average location of his targets. Looking at 2018, his targets came an average of nearly a yard past the line of scrimmage. Though this past season, he was consistently targets behind the line of scrimmage. In fact, in 2019, 41 of his 81 catches were thrown to him behind the line of scrimmage. In 2018, he had the advantage of 8 more passes allowing him to be more than a yard down the field before his catch.

Another intriguing find comes from adding up the air yards (distance downfield for each pass) of his 81 passes in each season. In 2018, he had picked up a total of 67 yards at the catch point. Last season: -32. These factors, along with his injuries seem to be connected in that he was put in less advantageous situations at the catch point while also being hampered by an injury that sacrificed some of his breakaway ability. He was still among the top of the league in broken tackles however, with 29.

The final, and very interesting element I chose to look at with this research were his redzone touches. This, to me, is one of the more telling patterns of Kamara’s down 2019 in terms of scoring. Remember, he scored 13 times in 2017, 18 in 2018, but only 6 times in 2019 - five of which on the ground and four in the final pair of games.

Some of the key findings in watching each redzone snap for the last two years:

AK 2019 Redzone Touches & Percentages

Season i20 Team Snaps i20 AK Targets i20 AK Carries
Season i20 Team Snaps i20 AK Targets i20 AK Carries
2018 204 25 (12%) 50 (25%)
2019 154 11 (7%) 26 (17%)

No mystery here. Considering AK’s two missed games as well as being on the field for 55% of the Saints’ redzone snaps, it makes perfect sense why his scoring production saw a drop-off.

His sophomore season where he scored 18 touchdowns, 16 were in the redzone. He was 2nd in NFL redzone rushing attempts and 4th in NFL redzone receptions (Michael Thomas was #3). In 2019? 22nd and 50th for Kamara respectively, with four of his five total touchdowns inside the 20. Simply put, redzone touches = touchdowns for Alvin Kamara.

With all of this information, two things are for sure. One: Kamara’s injury, combined with his usage and redzone snaps cost him some production in 2019. Two: it is reasonable to expect a bounce-back from a truly still productive season in 2020. By then, Kamara will be healthy, ready to go, and certainly the Saints coaching staff will work to combat the tendencies displayed and illustrated above.