The Looming Threat of Alvin Kamara's Contract

Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

It’s almost become a rallying cry and a meme of sorts when it comes to discussing football nowadays.

"Running backs don’t matter".

What started out as a phrase used to warn those looking to pay top dollar to hold onto or bring star running backs to their team is now basically a catchphrase amongst the analytical leaders in the sport and a sarcastic jab from those trying to mock them. Now, those four simple words aren’t the end of the discussion when it comes to running backs, but "running backs matter but there are too many good ones that can give you substantial production for less-than-substantial cost compared to the elite running backs" just doesn’t have the same ring to it. It’s less of a proclamation that the position should be ignored completely and more of an observation that it would be wiser to invest more of the salary cap into positions that have more of a direct influence on the game. So that leads to the question of what do you do when you find yourself with one of those elite running backs in your hands? Do you keep him because you’d be hard pressed to find a better alternative, or do you sacrifice having him in order to invest the money elsewhere?

This is a question the Rams had to answer with Todd Gurley, the Cowboys had to ask themselves with Ezekiel Elliot, and what the Vikings are currently asking themselves as Dalvin Cook holds out for a new contract. Most importantly (to these readers at least), this is what the Saints are currently mulling over with Alvin Kamara set to be a free agent at the end of the 2020 season.

To make this point clear from the beginning, this is in no way intended to be a slander on Kamara’s abilities. He’s rightfully a fan favorite and, despite a slightly down 3rd season thanks to injury and lack of touchdowns, one of the best running backs in the NFL today and almost certainly anyone who the Saints would replace him with would be a downgrade unless their last name was Barkley or McCaffrey. Given everything else equal, when choosing between having Alvin Kamara and not having Alvin Kamara, 99/100 people would choose having Kamara. Sadly, not everything else is equal.

The first step would be projecting what a possible Kamara extension would entail. Like previously mentioned, Kamara is one of the best running backs in football and will most likely expect to be paid like it. Christian McCaffrey recently signed a 4-year, $64 million extension with the Carolina Panthers that led him to be the top paid running back in the NFL, with an average value of $16 million a year. While Kamara’s not expected to sign for that much, I wouldn’t expect him to sign for much less than that either. This is just speculation on my end, but it wouldn’t surprise me if Kamara commanded a 4-year, $56 million deal, landing him just behind the deals reached by McCaffrey, Elliott and Gurley’s original Rams deal (Elliot was 6-yr, $90M; Gurley 4-yr, $57.5M). This would firmly entrench him as one of the highest-paid running backs in the NFL, a contract worthy of the NFL’s elite ballcarriers. This of course could be changed depending on how Dalvin Cook’s holdout goes, I’d imagine Kamara would warrant a higher-paid deal than the former Florida State standout.

Assuming Kamara gets his $14M/yr deal, we look ahead to the 2021 cap situation for the Saints. Which, according to Spotrac sits at about negative $36.6 million in estimated cap space. In layman’s terms, not great. Granted, a lot of this can be solved by clearing the $36 million cap hit that is Drew Brees’s contract, but that still comes with $22.6 million in dead cap space. The bill will come due soon for Mickey Loomis continually pushing the salary cap can down the road, and it’s expected to come the moment Drew Brees retires, which if it happens after 2020 like some are expecting, could mean the dead cap hits in 2021. (For those confused, even though Brees would retire his dead money would still count against the salary cap, which is why Luke Kuechley’s cap hit is just over $11.8 million for the Panthers this year (according to friends at Cat Scratch Reader)). So the Saints would have to find a way to clear up another $22.6 million in cap room before signing Kamara to the aforementioned $14M/yr deal. This isn’t helped by things like Taysom Hill and Andrus Peat combining for $27M on the 2021 cap alone. Of course, Saints fans know as well as anyone that Mickey Loomis laughs at the salary cap, so he’d find a way to make it work anyways.

What also doesn’t help is the Saints being victims of their own drafting success thanks to the legendary 2017 draft class where they landed Kamara, Marshon Lattimore, Ryan Ramcyzk and Marcus Williams, who will all need new contracts around the same time. Lattimore and Ramcyzk are helped by the fifth-year option on their first round contracts, but Williams is a free agent at the same time as Kamara and arguably just as if not more deserving of an extension. So likely, the Saints will have a choice. Kamara or Williams. Since they let Vonn Bell walk, I’m inclined to believe they won’t want to lose both safeties in back to back offseasons. Add that contract on to however much the Saints will need to free up to keep Kamara.

We also need to weigh having Kamara on a top running back salary versus having an above-average-to-good running back on a slightly modest, say $3.6 million a year salary for the next two seasons after Kamara’s gone. For simplicity’s sake, let’s call our hypothetical running back Latavius Murray. Don’t get it mistaken, Latavius Murray is not as good as Alvin Kamara and there will be literally zero sane people to try to argue that. However, with an offensive line as good as the Saints’ is (PFF’s 5th rated run blocking OL in 2019), they don’t need an elite running back to successfully run the ball. For example, Kamara missed two games with injury in 2019. In those two games, Murray ran 27 times for 119 yards vs the Bears and 21 times for 102 yards vs the Cardinals. Yes, there is a legitimate small sample size argument to be made there, but it’s entirely possible for a running back like Murray to succeed behind this line. His 4.4 yards per carry in 2019 was his best since 2014, a season where he only ran the ball 82 times.

Lastly, running backs are inherently volatile. If there’s anything that these past few years have taught us is that it’s dangerous to pay a long-term, high-salary contract to a RB. Todd Gurley and David Johnson are the first to come to mind as running backs that got paid big and then fell off. Gurley made it two years into the four year deal before being cut, and Johnson was so bad he had to be packaged with a second round pick for the Texans to take him, and all the Cards got in return was some veteran wide receiver from Clemson. Le’Veon Bell also has not lived up to his billing as a $13M/yr back since signing for the Jets, though that could be argued is more of a product of his OL being laughably terrible, but even then that says more that investing in the OL is more worth it than investing in a RB. That’s why the Titans were hesitant to pay Derrick Henry and the Chargers opted to pay Austin Eckler over Melvin Gordon. Teams are realizing that it’s just not worth it to sign up for that risk. Even Ezekiel Elliott, who has definitely lived up to his billing as the #4 overall pick in 2016, has a massive contract that limited who the Cowboys could keep to the point where they might lose their franchise quarterback over it.

To make this point clear one last time, I want Kamara to be a Saint forever. He’s a joy to watch on the field and, from all accounts, a wonderful man off of it and if they signed him to a contract I wouldn’t be upset in the slightest. However the Saints’ bleak cap future and the volatility of running backs in general make me weary of what could happen if they signed him to one.

This FanPost was written by a reader and member of Canal Street Chronicles. It does not necessarily reflect the views of CSC and its staff or editors.

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