Saints like Alvin Kamara's 'pitch count,' even with Mark Ingram gone

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METAIRIE, La. -- Sean Payton’s funniest moment of training camp came when he was asked if this will be the year when the New Orleans Saints “unleash” running back Alvin Kamara.

“You didn’t just ask that question. You didn’t just ask that question,” Payton responded incredulously. “Yeah, we’re gonna unleash Alvin this year. He’s gonna be a new weapon.”

Payton then acknowledged that he understood the question. Because, well, it’s the same one that pretty much every fantasy football owner across the globe has, too.

Now that Mark Ingram is in Baltimore, does that mean Kamara is going to become even more of a monster?

And it’s a fair question, because when Ingram was suspended for the first four games last year, Kamara was on pace for 1,100 rushing yards, 1,344 receiving yards and 24 touchdowns -- which would have made him just the third 1,000/1,000 back in NFL history.

But here’s the snag if you’re thinking of taking Kamara with the No. 1 overall pick in your fantasy league: Payton doesn’t want Kamara playing 82 percent of the Saints’ offensive snaps like he did during that four-game stretch.

Payton actually prefers the 61 percent that Kamara settled into for the rest of the games he played in, including the playoffs.

“It will be similar to what we’ve been seeing,” Payton said of Kamara’s expected usage. “We’ve been pleased with the balance we’ve had with him. We think it’s been a good count.”

That’s why the Saints immediately pounced on veteran running back Latavius Murray in free agency, agreeing to a four-year, $14.4 million deal with him during the “legal tampering” period -- even before Ingram signed with the Baltimore Ravens.

And it’s why they brought in running back Theo Riddick for a visit last week before he signed with the Denver Broncos. (The Saints wound up signing veteran runner/receiver Jacquizz Rodgers instead to compete for a backup role with Dwayne Washington, among others.)

“Look, is one player taking exactly Mark Ingram’s reps? I can’t tell you that right now,” Payton said. “And yet I think there's that presumption that Alvin’s going to get more. And I think our pitch count and how we’ve played and utilized him has been really good.”

That’s a different approach than other teams have taken with their No. 1 backs.

Last year, Christian McCaffrey played 58 snaps per game on offense, while Ezekiel Elliott and Todd Gurley averaged 56. In 2017, Le’Veon Bell averaged 59.

Kamara averaged 54 offensive snaps per game when Ingram was gone from Weeks 1-4. But he averaged just 38.5 per game after that, including the playoffs.

“As the season goes on, everybody else is starting to break down. That’s one of the benefits right there,” Saints running backs coach Joel Thomas said. “Keep him fresh, keep him rolling.”

Kamara has never shied away from taking on a bigger role in New Orleans’ offense. But he has also never complained about a lack of touches.

Probably because his usage has worked out so well for him so far.

Kamara had 1,554 yards from scrimmage and 14 total touchdowns as a rookie in 2017, including a kickoff return, in 16 games played. Last year, he had 1,592 yards from scrimmage and 18 touchdowns in 15 games played (sitting out when the Saints rested some starters in Week 17). He had exactly 81 catches each season. But his rushing attempts vaulted from 120 to 194 while his yards per carry dipped from an astronomical 6.1 to a slightly more human 4.6.

“It definitely helps. It gives the defense a different look, rather than me just being in every play,” Kamara said of splitting time with Ingram the past two years -- and now, presumably, with Murray. “Latavius is a proven back too. So there’s things he can do that maybe I don’t do as well -- and things that I can do that maybe he doesn’t do as well. So just combining our efforts.”

Kamara seems to enjoy playing it coy whenever the subject of workload is broached. He didn't even let the reporter finish when asked the other day if there is a “sweet spot for the number of touches …”

“There ain’t no sweet spot,” Kamara said with a smile.

Said Thomas: “The natural competitor in all these guys, they want more. But like I’ve said in the past, he’s one of the smartest guys on this team and he understands that we’re all on the same page with what we’re trying to do. And there’s gonna be time when, hey, ‘It’s you, let’s go, you gotta carry us.’”

Just because the Saints like the idea of preserving Kamara, there is no limit to what they believe he can do on the football field.

Payton, Thomas and others constantly point out how smart Kamara is.

“One of the smarter guys on the team -- and I can’t overstate that, to the point where one rep and he has it,” Payton recently told Sirius/XM Radio.

The coaches even gave Kamara a fidget spinner last year to make sure he doesn’t get bored.

“Just go onto … a plot where every player is lined up on the field. And if you pulled up the last two seasons, you’re not gonna catch a tendency on where he’s lined up because he’s everywhere,” Thomas said.

Murray’s role likely won’t be as substantial as Ingram’s was in 2017 when Ingram and Kamara made history by both surpassing 1,500 yards from scrimmage with 58-plus catches and 12-plus touchdowns. That year, the two Saints backs were pretty interchangeable as runners, receivers, pass protectors and goal-line backs.

But the workload split could be similar to what we saw when Ingram returned from his suspension last year, when Kamara was the “1A,” if not the clear No. 1.

Murray is more of a power runner than pass-catcher. But he has been especially effective near the goal line during his five-year career.

“We'll see how that progresses,” Payton said of Murray’s role in the passing game. “You have to have some versatility and he's shown that, whether it's the underneath throws, he knows who he is blocking. I think he is pretty good in protection. So how much [he’s involved] in the passing game I think is still to be determined.”

Receptions is one area where Kamara’s fantasy value could potentially increase. His 81 catches in each of the past two seasons feels like a floor. Not only was he splitting time with Ingram, who had 58 catches in 2017 and 21 last year, but the Saints didn’t need to use him much in their no-huddle, empty-backfield looks last year since they weren’t playing from behind very often.

But even if 2019 winds up being “more of the same” from Kamara, well, that works too.

“Every time you see him make these special reads and cuts, you say ‘Wow,’” Thomas said when asked what he is seeing from Kamara on the practice field in Year 3. “It never gets old.”