The first thing you notice about Alvin Kamara is that he isn't always easy to tackle.
With his combination of elusiveness, strength and balance, tacklers often bounce right off him. After seeing it happen time and again, it becomes clear this isn’t a fluke. It's the running back's game.
There’s an image that comes to mind when you hear the term “satellite back,” which was repeatedly used after the Saints traded up to select Kamara in the third round. You think of a guy who attacks the edges and provides some elusiveness. You might not expect to see a player who can run through tackles.
But then you watch Kamara play against Vanderbilt and see him catch a screen and run through five tackles, with guys missing high and low, on his way to a touchdown. Then you see him run through an array of tackle attempts on his way to two scores against Kentucky.
That’s when you realize the stereotypes often aren't fair. Kamara might fit the mold of a satellite back, and possess those tools, but he brings others traits to New Orleans.
Pass-catching backs have always played a big part in Sean Payton’s offense, dating back to 2006 when the team drafted Reggie Bush. The plan might not have been to feature the role so prominently, but when it became apparent the Saints were going to be able to draft Bush, the coaching staff started cooking up new ways to use him.
“That wasn’t something we were planning on that happened relatively late to the draft,” Payton said. “I can recall the next week, just staff meeting after staff meeting on offense, changing, adding, tweaking things that fit him and maybe he and Deuce McAlllister.”
With the role part of the offense, it created mismatches Drew Brees could exploit in the passing game. After Bush came Darren Sproles, who took the role to new heights. New Orleans tried to replace Sproles with C.J. Spiller in 2015, but it never worked out, and Travaris Cadet has manned the position since.
The offense has become more dependent on the other skill positions in recent years, but that’s likely due to the personnel more so than a change in philosophy. That doesn't mean it still isn't important. Last season’s Week 1 game against Oakland serves as an example. During the two-minute drill to end the first half the Saints ran three plays to Cadet – two on out routes – and could shift formations without changing personnel due to his ability to move around.
It’s easy to see Kamara stepping into that role. In a game against Georgia last year, he caught an out route about 5 yards down the field, kept his feet in bounds while breaking a tackle, and took it the rest of the way for a touchdown. He also ran three out routes from the slot against Alabama.
The fit seems natural in those moments.
The interesting thing, however, is that in the five games reviewed for this article, Kamara didn’t run many receiver routes. Most of his catches came from routes out of the backfield. The Saints brought up Bush and Sproles when discussing Kamara, and Payton had him run a bunch of routes during a private workout, so it’s clear they envision him doing much more. It just didn’t happen in Tennessee’s offense, where he oddly only received 143 touches on offense last season.
It will be interesting to see how New Orleans uses Kamara in the running game. He ran between the tackles as well as outside in college. The running back was also very effective on draws from shotgun formations. He’ll likely continue to do a little bit of everything here, though he will be behind Adrian Peterson and Mark Ingram on the depth chart as a standard runner.
But there’s no question the Saints will figure out a way to use him and help him level up. The team targeted this player and moved up the board to draft him. He fills a need, and Kamara lands with a team that will know how to get the most out of his talents.
In theory, it's a win-win situation.
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