METAIRIE, La. — At some point soon, the New Orleans Saints will probably have to choose a star player they can’t afford to keep, considering they’re slammed against the salary cap — and, well, they have an awful lot of star players.
And for a couple of weeks there, it looked like Alvin Kamara was in jeopardy of becoming that player because of the position he plays.
But ultimately the Saints decided to pony up on a five-year contract extension worth $75 million in new money because the 25-year-old Kamara is not just any running back.
That’s significantly more than standout running backs like Dalvin Cook, Derrick Henry and Joe Mixon made in their recent contract extensions — because the Saints are confident that Kamara can do more as both a runner and receiver.
The Saints could have played chicken with Kamara, hoping that he wouldn’t hold out any regular-season games and trying to squeeze a motivated season out of him in the final year of his rookie deal at the discounted rate of $2.133 million.
But they would have been in a serious bind without him in this “Super Bowl or bust” season with 41-year-old quarterback Drew Brees. And beyond that, this signifies they are confident in making Kamara a nucleus of their offense long after Brees retires. The Saints also locked up Michael Thomas with a lucrative long-term extension last year, which assures this offense should be in good shape for 2021 at least — no matter who the quarterback is then.
Through three seasons, Kamara has 2,408 rushing yards, 2,068 receiving yards and 38 touchdowns.
He has finished with exactly 81 catches every year — despite missing two games last season with knee and ankle injuries that plagued him for the final three months. It’s easy to picture him reaching 100 catches in a season, especially if the Saints ever find themselves trailing in more games instead of running out the clock with so many leads.
Kamara ranks second behind McCaffrey in receptions and receiving yards by a running back since 2017. And further demonstrating his versatility, Kamara ranks first among all backs with 399 receiving yards out of the slot in that span, according to ESPN Stats and Information. He has another 250 receiving yards when lined up out wide.
Remember, at this time last year Kamara and McCaffrey were widely being rated neck-and-neck as two of the NFL’s most dynamic dual threats. In fact, Kamara ranked ahead of McCaffrey on the NFL Network’s top 100 in 2019, while ESPN’s NFL Rank had McCaffrey at No. 22 and Kamara at No. 26.
Then McCaffrey raced ahead by becoming just the third player in NFL history with 1,000 rushing yards and 1,000 receiving yards and being named first-team All-Pro, while Kamara had his least productive season because of the injuries.
But the premise remains true: Kamara is a game-changing talent. Of course there are still some concerns when it comes to paying any running back.
First is the injuries, which have already affected Kamara. The 5-foot-10, 215-pounder said he was playing on “one leg” after suffering a sprained MCL in Week 6 last year. He was also a little banged up early in 2018 after the Saints leaned on him for a tremendous workload while Mark Ingram served a four-game suspension.
Kamara was phenomenal as a one-man show for those four weeks (leading the NFL with 611 yards from scrimmage and tied for the NFL lead with six touchdowns).
He also got off to a tremendous start last year with 169 yards from scrimmage in a Week 1 win over Houston, 161 yards and two touchdowns in a Week 3 win at Seattle and a whopping 25 broken tackles over the first four weeks (according to Pro Football Reference).
But in general, the Saints believe that kind of workload takes a toll — which is why they also invested in veteran backup Latavius Murray once Ingram left in free agency. Over the past two years, Kamara has averaged 42 snaps per game compared to 60 for McCaffrey when they play a full workload.
The second “risk” with paying a running back is that replacements can be found fairly cheap. The first one drafted this year was Clyde Edwards-Helaire at No. 32 overall. Meanwhile, veterans such as Leonard Fournette and Adrian Peterson were released by their teams this past week, while Devonta Freeman is still looking for work.
It hasn’t escaped the Saints that you rarely see expensive running backs headlining Super Bowl championship roster.
And last, but certainly not least, is the Saints’ own daunting cap situation. Even before they signed Kamara, they were already projected to have more than $240 million in salary-cap charges in 2021, according to ESPN Stats and Info. And because of lost revenues from the coronavirus pandemic, the cap could plummet as low as $175 million per team next year.
On top of that, the Saints are nearing the ends of contracts with fellow standouts like linebacker Demario Davis, offensive tackles Ryan Ramczyk and Terron Armstead, cornerback Marshon Lattimore and safety Marcus Williams.
There are creative ways for the Saints to make it work by pushing millions in cap costs into future years. But they are well aware of their financial limitations – which is why they ultimately fell short in their pursuit of free agent defensive end Jadeveon Clowney this past week.
So their willingness to pay this much for Kamara speaks volumes about how much they value him.