Seven days after the fact, last week’s column about Adrian Peterson’s final ride doesn’t look very smart. Whereas he never played more than 14 snaps in his four games with the Saints, on Sunday AP played a whopping 45 snaps in Arizona, carried it 26 times for 134 yards and scored twice: once on a slashing 27-yard scamper in the first quarter, and once from the goal line in the fourth. Maybe I’ll quibble and say he still looks on the slow side to me, but power and agility were in abundance. I’m skeptical he’ll hold up to that kind of workload every week, but it was an awesome debut with the Cardinals, epitomized by a play on which he didn’t touch the ball: Brent Grimes intercepted Carson Palmer in the third quarter with AP nearby, and Grimes juked Peterson, who crumpled to the turf. Grimes sprinted all the way across the field evading would-be tacklers, and about ten seconds later the offensive player who downed him was … Adrian Peterson. He just wanted it so much.
But I won’t criticize the Saints for dealing away Peterson on the cheap, because I think they’re set up for the future with a true stud rookie: Alvin Kamara.
Last week, I talked about Sean Payton’s history of producing strong numbers for two running backs at the same time. To refresh: Reggie Bush and Deuce McAllister in 2006, Bush and Pierre Thomas in ’08 and ’09, Darren Sproles and Thomas in ’11 and ’13 … each tandem was terrific. And based on Week 6 against the Lions, Kamara and Mark Ingram could be the best of the bunch.
Sunday was the first iteration of this trio-turned-duo, and Ingram was the star. He played 46 snaps compared to 29 for Kamara, he busted a 51-yard first-quarter run — Ingram should’ve been tackled four yards in the backfield but he’s a strong dude, he kept his balance, and the field opened up for him — and ended the day with 30 touches, 150 scrimmage yards and two goal-line TDs.
Meanwhile, Kamara carried it 10 times Sunday and caught four passes, but more important than numbers is how he looked. The Saints ran typical “small back” plays for the rookie: Line him up beside Drew Brees in shotgun and pitch it to him, throw him quick-hitting screens, run inside-zone out of a passing formation … all the stuff that the Browns do with Duke Johnson, the Patriots do with James White, and Washington does with Chris Thompson. The difference? Kamara has all the acceleration and quickness those smaller men have, but he’s 5-foot-11 and 215 pounds.
Kamara is not the thumper Ingram is, but he’s damn sturdy. Take his 10-yard run toward the end of the first quarter: The kid is quick enough to dance around the reaching arm of Akeem Spence, accelerates, and smacks into star rookie linebacker Jarrad Davis — with whom Kamara is familiar from their SEC days — and Kamara just plowed Davis, and Tahir Whitehead had to help with the tackle.
With Kamara, you get the acceleration, the oomph, the quickness … plus just a few weeks ago against the Dolphins, you got the James White game: 10 receptions for 71 yards and a touchdown on a little red-zone shovel pass. Kamara has 24 catches in five games, including a downfield shot against the Patriots on which he split wide and ran past Patrick Chung to high-point a 38-yard bomb. He’s got the size to be a feature back, but he can do that? This kid is the truth.
I actually counted seven snaps against the Lions Sunday on which Kamara and Ingram played together, often split in the backfield alongside Brees in shotgun. On those plays, Ingram had four touches and Kamara had two, and while an NFL team can’t play their two main RBs every down, that’s a nightmare formation to defend.
So okay, yes, for 2017, Ingram deserves to be valued more by fantasy owners. Sunday made it clear that Ingram is first choice to plunge close TDs into the end zone, plus he’s an above-average receiver himself (though he’s not running too many fly patterns). And sure, any time the Saints find themselves winning 45-10 — as they did Sunday against the Lions — I’d favor Ingram: He’s the contact-seeking missile who doesn’t evade so much as he punishes, which is perfect for closing out a game. But for long stretches in closer contests (Weeks 1, 2 and 4 come to mind), Payton went hurry-up and left Kamara out there. With Peterson gone, these backs will divvy up 50 or 60 snaps per game. If the Saints stay hot on offense, why can’t Kamara be Tevin Coleman: a “secondary” back who nevertheless is given multiple chances every week to make plays?
And then there’s the future. Next year, Ingram will be 29 and carry a $6.2 million cap hit, $4.6 of which would be recoverable if the Saints cut him. (Ingram’s contract also has a player-void component if he makes the Pro Bowl this year.) Even if Ingram sticks around, the 22-year-old Kamara will have three years left on his rookie deal and will be ready for a bigger workload. Given his acceleration, hands, quickness and size, by then I think he’ll be the Saints’ starter.
Yes, Payton has frustrated fantasy owners looking for a single workhorse back in New Orleans, plus Brees will be 39 next year and can void his contract and walk, so I can’t claim to understand the lay of Kamara’s land next year or thereafter. But boy, I think his future is insanely bright. After watching him play just one NFL regular season game, I realized I’d underappreciated him as a draft prospect, and right now I’d put him on par with dynasty darling Kareem Hunt, in talent if not quite in situation. Use Kamara this week as a risky RB2, understanding that his workload could fluctuate more than I hope. Moving forward? Treat Kamara as a player with true RB1 upside.
Christopher Harris runs HarrisFootball.com, where you can find more info on the “Harris Football Podcast,” with new episodes every weekday.