New Orleans Saints running back Alvin Kamara lit the NFL on fire the moment he became a feature back alongside Mark Ingram during the 2017 season. Each season of his career, even a 2019 plagued with injury, he’s hauled in at least 81 receptions with 83 in 2020.
How much of that production came from his connection with Drew Brees? Was it mostly scheme? And how will it all be affected without Brees under center?
We got a good look at Taysom Hill with Alvin Kamara in 2020. 15 targets over four games including just five over the first three contests. Kamara caught 10 of those targets for 51 yards and no scores. But the season before when Teddy Bridgewater filled in for Brees, Kamara totaled 25 catches on 28 targets for 189 yards and a touchdown.
Clearly the scheme shifted with Taysom Hill under center far more than it did with Teddy Bridgewater who maintained more of a Brees-style approach. Taysom Hill’s more expansive toolset seemingly gave him some additional options to choose from before checking down to Kamara. He was able to buy time with his mobility, look downfield, or scramble on his own. That ended up being a detriment to Kamara’s passing game production. That and Hill’s struggles in touch passing.
Hill’s competition, Jameis Winston, in the meanwhile still has yet to be seen extensively with Alvin Kamara. Though while playing in relief of Brees in 2020’s San Francisco 49ers game, he showed great touch on a pass down the left sideline and did target Kamara a few times in what was a conservative plan to close out the game.
Jameis Winston is not know for a conservative approach. Certainly not the way that Drew Brees is. Before the 2019 season, Drew Brees had targeted running backs more than any other quarterback since 2009. He went to his backfield option 27.1% of the time.
Meanwhile, Winston targeted outside receivers at the second-highest rate in that same timeframe with a whopping 43.1%. He also targeted backs only 16% of the time, 20th since ‘09.
Most receptions by RBs in 2020:— PFF (@PFF) January 8, 2021
1. Alvin Kamara - 83
2. J.D. McKissic - 80
3. Nyheim Hines - 64
4. Mike Davis - 59 pic.twitter.com/wCG5wU5Q6o
With that, it is reasonable to expect a bit of a shift in the passing game should Jameis Winston win the starting role in New Orleans. But to expect an entirely diametric change may be a bit much. Sean Payton’s scheme is proven to be successful. While anticipating the offense opening up more in 2021 is justified, Payton still hate mistakes and hates turnovers.
Winston has echoed some of this in his offseason interviews where he’s discussed learning from Drew Brees how important it is to make the right decision. Often times, that right decision may be to check it down to Alvin Kamara.
Kamara has gotten a lot of attention over the last four years as the running back most targeted in the passing game since he entered the league (409). If we look over his first three years, we can compare his targets to the amount of times Winston looked to his running backs when with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Alvin Kamara: 81 receptions on 95 targets (25/28 with Bridgewater)
Tampa’s Backs: 84 receptions on 103 targets (only Winston)
Alvin Kamara: 81 receptions on 98 targets (Brees)
Tampa’s Backs: 68 receptions on 84 targets (Winston/Ryan Fitzpatrick)
Alvin Kamara: 81 receptions on 96 targets (Brees)
Tampa’s Backs: 74 receptions on 97 targets (Winston/Fitzpatrick)
Interestingly, despite targeting outside receivers among the most before 2019, that very year ended up being the only season where Tampa’s targets to running backs exceeded Kamara’s by more than one. This suggests that Winston does have the ability to provide some volume if he redirects some of the intermediate to deep shots to the running backs.
Jameis Winston: 1,351 yards on throws 20+ yards downfield in 2019— PFF (@PFF) May 11, 2020
Most in the NFL pic.twitter.com/d16L2GvcjW
According to PFF, in that 2019 season Brees and Bridgewater combined for just 45 passes more than 20 yards downfield. Winston topped that by a whopping 54, totaling 99 deep passes.
If you replaced some of those with Latavius Murray’s 42 targets from 2019, that would still leave 56 deep shots, still exceeding Brees and Bridgewater by 11.
You could even add back in the additional eight targets Winston gave to backs (103) over Kamara’s rate that year (95) to boost that downfield total up to 64; one more than Patrick Mahomes threw in 2019. And that’s without considering any overlap in Alvin Kamara’s potential for deep passes himself.
Kamara has consistently been top five at his position in slot receptions each year of his career as well. If he was given the opportunity to get back to his 2017 usage where he totaled the most slot targets for running backs, that too could help Winston keep Kamara involved in the passing game. Same can be said of Taysom Hill.
It’s more than possible that Winston can bring more of a downfield attack to New Orleans without sacrificing Alvin Kamara’s production in the passing game. Even with Winston’s history as an explosive passer, settling into Sean Payton’s scheme could allow him to expand his game and continue to make those right decisions he’s been discussing.
What do you think will happen to Kamara’s passing game production in 2021? Make sure you follow Canal Street Chronicles on Twitter at @SaintsCSC , “Like” us on Facebook at Canal Street Chronicles, and make sure you’re subscribed to our new YouTube channel. As always, you can follow me on Twitter @RossJacksonNOLA and subscribe to my daily Saints podcast, Locked On Saints.