New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton is the best coach in the NFL at giving running backs productive work. One could argue that Bill Belichick holds that distinction, but as fantasy football has moved to leagues that use points per reception, Payton becomes the clear leader. Since his debut as coach in 2006, Payton's offense has targeted running backs 316 times for 244 receptions, 1,243 yards and 61 touchdowns. The next highest in all those categories is the team formerly located in San Diego with 225 targets, 165 receptions for 964 yards and 39 touchdowns. Payton's focus was evident last year when Mark Ingram and rookie Alvin Kamara dominated enough to both finish as top-six fantasy running backs with Kamara at No. 3 and Ingram No. 6. The question for those of us drafting this year is, will Kamara be able to repeat his rookie-year numbers?
Before we get into 2018, let's take a look at how Kamara put together his tremendous season. On just 201 touches (120 rushing/81 receiving), Kamara totaled 1,554 yards and 13 touchdowns. His counterpart, Ingram, totaled 288 touches (230 rushing/58 receiving) for 1,540 yards and 12 touchdowns. Both had great seasons, but Kamara was other-worldly on a per-touch basis, averaging 6.1 yards per carry and 10.2 yards per reception compared to Ingram's 4.9 yards per carry and 7.2 yards per reception. And at first glance, it's impossible not to foresee Kamara's averages normalizing somewhat. How much they normalize is up for debate, but with that normalizing, there will be more opportunities.
Last season, Kamara averaged 13.1 touches per game, including playoffs, compared to Mark Ingram's 17.2 touches. But, if you look at the numbers from Week 10 on, that average gets much closer, with Kamara getting 14.6 touches per game to Ingram's 14.9 per game, with a three receptions-per-game lead. That coincides with their snap rates, as Kamara began to see a bigger percentage of snaps than Ingram in the second half of the season and even ended up with more red-zone looks in the last eight games. And that carried into the playoffs as Kamara scored two touchdowns to Ingram's zero, with one score on a 14-yard touchdown pass and the other on a 2-yard goal-line run.
Sean Payton doesn't want Kamara to be a bell-cow back, as his big-play ability is heightened due to his receiving ability which puts him in good matchups and frees him up for big yards after the catch, so I don't expect Kamara to somehow morph into a 20-touch per game player but I do see him upping his 13.1 touches per game by a decent margin.
One of the most significant boosts for Kamara will be Ingram's four-game suspension to start the year. We don't have any precedent for Kamara's workload with Ingram out, but we do know they finished the season with Kamara ahead of Ingram in snaps, and there isn't anyone on the Saints who will command more snaps than Ingram would have. Payton will have a committee backfield with someone in place of Ingram, but he will play second fiddle to Kamara. If we give Kamara around 17 touches per game with Ingram out and then 15 with him back, he's sitting at 240 touches compared to his 201 last season. That's still quite a bit fewer than your top fantasy running backs, but I also don't see his per-touch averages normalizing into actual normal numbers, as the super sophomore is quite good at playing football and has one of, if not the best, offensive lines and will again see around 100 targets. Those targets are like gold in New Orleans' offense, and even if he never ran the ball once, he'd still have a lovely fantasy floor.
Kamara's touchdown rate is probably the hardest to get around, as he was quite prolific at scoring with 6.6 percent of his touches going for touchdowns. I don't expect him to fall into mere mortal numbers, but that's another stat that is likely to see regression. But again, regression in efficiency coupled with an increase in touches shouldn't cause a significant drop-off.
Last season, Kamara had a 27 percent team market share in rushing attempts and a 19 percent share in targets. And as I've noted, his yards per carry were 6.1 and yards per reception was 10.2., while his rushing touchdown rate was 6.7 percent, and his receiving touchdown rate was five percent. If we push those numbers around for 2018, giving him a 32 percent rushing share and an 18 percent target share and knocking down his rushing touchdown rate to five percent and his receiving touchdown rate to four percent, we still end up with Kamara around the fifth-best fantasy running back in the league with 143 rushing attempts for 770 yards and seven touchdowns and 83 receptions for 755 yards and four touchdowns, which puts him under his 2017 numbers but still in elite PPR company and a strong target in the first round of your drafts.