Breakout stars like Kamara, McCaffrey aren't just for third downs anymore

METAIRIE, La. -- The NFL's rookie running back class is catching on faster than any in recent history, thanks to new dual-threat stars such as Alvin Kamara and Christian McCaffrey.

Kamara, who leads the NFL in total yards from scrimmage since Week 6, has 54 catches and 548 receiving yards for the 8-3 New Orleans Saints. McCaffrey has 59 and 468 for the 8-3 Carolina Panthers. The two teams are preparing to meet in Sunday's critical NFC South showdown in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

According to Elias Sports Bureau research, this year's loaded rookie running back class -- which includes versatile runner/receivers Kareem Hunt, Dalvin Cook, Tarik Cohen and Joe Mixon, power runner Leonard Fournette and others -- is on pace to have the most receptions, receiving yards and receiving TDs of any class dating back to at least 1980.

"We used to call it the third-down back, right? Well, that third-down back plays on first down now because you're seeing more wide-open offenses," said Matt Bowen, an ESPN analyst and former NFL safety. "I think that's the direction the league is going, is to find that versatile matchup piece. And they come into the league with experience [because colleges and high schools are running more and more spread offenses].

"I would love to have an offense with McCaffrey or Kamara. There's so much you can do."

More and more, the NFL has been feeling the same way.

The Panthers selected McCaffrey with the No. 8 pick in the draft with the intention of using him heavily in their passing and kick-return games after he starred as a triple threat at Stanford. That's the highest a running back of McCaffrey's style has been drafted since the Saints took Reggie Bush with the No. 2 pick in 2006.

And the Saints, who have long valued versatile runner/receivers such as Bush, Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas during the Sean Payton era, traded up to draft Kamara in Round 3.

New Orleans has thrived by using two dual threats this year in Kamara and veteran Mark Ingram (36 catches for 218 yards). NFL Network scouting analyst Bucky Brooks said he thinks the Saints' success will inspire even more copycatting throughout the league.

'Everyone's looking for a matchup'

Payton, who was Marshall Faulk's running backs coach at San Diego State in the early 1990s and Tiki Barber's offensive coordinator with the New York Giants in the early 2000s, was quick to point out that the pass-catching running back is nothing new to the NFL. But he said the evolution of the passing game has made guys who present unique matchup problems an even higher priority.

"I think as we've seen the rules change in a fashion that benefits the passing game, we've seen those investments made in backs that can help you in the passing game," Payton said. "Throwing the ball to the running back is nothing new from an evolution standpoint. In fact, you go way back and teams were in brown and blue, your backs were primary pattern runners. But I think everyone's looking for a matchup. Everyone's looking for the tight end that can create the matchup, and then the other joker position that can create the matchup is the runner.

"Marshall Faulk in St. Louis, that to me is the standard. His ability to do a lot of things well -- as a receiver he's outstanding, amazing."

Payton made a comparison to Faulk's intelligence when praising Kamara this summer, but he was quick to shut down any comparison between the two when asked about them Thursday.

"Nope, nope, nope, nope. Stop. Marshall Faulk's a first-ballot Hall of Famer. We're not doing that to a rookie running back," Payton said. "This kid has got really, really good football intelligence. He's got good transitional speed. But even when I made the comparison back in training camp it was prefaced with, 'Hey, not making a comparison to Marshall, I'm saying he's a guy that learns very quickly and that's how Marshall was.'"

So far, Kamara has been even better as a true between-the-tackles runner than even the Saints expected. He is averaging 7.1 yards per carry -- nearly two full yards ahead of any other qualified running back in the NFL.

Kamara's rushing and receiving numbers are almost identical (546 rushing, 548 receiving), putting him on pace for nearly 1,600 yards from scrimmage, 79 receptions and 13 touchdowns.

McCaffrey, meanwhile, is on pace for "only" 390 rushing yards, 86 catches for 681 receiving yards and seven touchdowns.

So does that mean the Panthers should regret drafting McCaffrey all the way up at No. 8 -- 59 spots ahead of Kamara? Hardly, says ESPN analyst and Hall of Fame general manager Bill Polian.

"Heck, he's been what you would expect from Day 1," Polian said. "If you were sitting there in the Panthers' office, you're sitting there saying, 'Wow! We got exactly what we thought we were getting.'"

Polian reminded that McCaffrey is asked to do more in Carolina's offense, playing running back, all three receiver positions and special teams.

McCaffrey has been on the field for 68.3 percent (516) of Carolina's offensive snaps and 15.3 percent of the special-teams snaps, compared to Kamara's 44 percent and 10 percent in New Orleans.

Plus, Polian and Bowen both said Kamara has benefited from playing with quarterback Drew Brees, who is one of the NFL's most accurate passers of all-time and is used to routinely throwing to running backs. That style of offense has been more of an adjustment for Cam Newton. And Polian said defenses have been able to key in on McCaffrey more than Kamara this year, something that might change when tight end Greg Olsen comes back healthy.

"McCaffrey was more of a known quantity [than Kamara was at Tennessee, where he split time with Jalen Hurd]," Polian said. "I must say that [McCaffrey] has translated to the NFL probably about as well as anybody could have. He's what he was in college. He's a great receiver, better running back than people really knew. He does everything you want him to do and does it well."

Balance breaks tackles

Polian was equally complimentary of Kamara, saying his ability as a runner and an "every-down back" has been "a little bit more of a surprise" because of how many big runs he has been breaking.

"It’s been a great pick for the Saints," Polian said.

Bowen, who played with Faulk in St. Louis, also brought him up as the standard, and he said it helped that former Rams play caller Mike Martz was an aggressive visionary who saw him as an every-down back -- which Payton has also done throughout his time as a NFL coach.

"Breaking tackles isn't always about power and size. That's old-school talk. It's about balance and functional ability as an athlete. That's what you see with Kamara. That's what you see with McCaffrey," Bowen said. "These guys run low to the ground, and their core strength and lower-body strength is amazing. Also their footwork. They can slip tackles. You don't want your running back running headfirst into guys 20 times a game.

"I played with Marshall Faulk as a rookie. I remember John Lynch getting him once on a Monday night game. Once. That's the only time I saw him get hit all year -- really, physically hit. He always slipped guys at the last moment. He always fell forward. He never went backward."

Kamara talked about that rare skill set this week, saying he feels like he sees the field like "The Matrix."

"What's great about Kamara, and I have no problem saying he's a star, or he's gonna be a star in the NFL if he stays healthy, is because that's the added part of the game," Bowen said. "He can get to the edge in the run game, he's great in the open field, he runs with tremendous balance. We don't use that term enough, we don't look at that skill set enough throughout the draft process."

If the NFL wasn't valuing that trait enough before, it certainly will now.