Once upon a time and many years ago, the running back position was viewed as the most famous and glamorous position that a Pro Football player could ever play; and the names of some of the NFL’s all-time greatest legends such as Jim Brown, Walter Payton, and Barry Sanders, are a testament to that fact.
But unfortunately because of the sheer brutality and unrelenting physical punishment that RB’s now endure in today’s modern-day NFL, the average shelf-life of players at the position remarkably has shrunk to ONLY 3 years. For the New Orleans Saints and now 4th year RB Alvin Kamara, it could make this upcoming season a “survival of the fittest” — meaning that a huge key to their success in 2020 will be heavily impacted by the soon-to-be 25-year old’s durability — and his efforts to remain healthy and relatively injury-free.
In his first two NFL seasons in 2017 and 2018, very few other young players throughout the League had any bigger impact with their teams than Kamara did with the Black and Gold. After Saints front-office brass drafted him in the 3rd Round of the 2017 NFL Draft following a trade with the San Francisco 49ers, Kamara quickly emerged to became an NFL superstar almost overnight; as he averaged 6.1 yards per rush and 10.2 yards per catch as a rookie.
— Dov Kleiman (@NFL_DovKleiman) November 26, 2017
— SWM (@sportswm) December 31, 2017
Since that time, among his impressive achievements were being chosen as the 2017 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, and then a stellar 2nd year in the 2018 NFL Season that was highlighted by his phenomenal production which included the rather eye-popping numbers of 1,592 total yards from scrimmage and 18 touchdowns.
With Kamara in the #1 / lead RB role within the Saints offensive scheme under head coach Sean Payton, the entire franchise was “re-energized” following three straight (7-9) losing seasons from 2014 to 2016, and as a direct result New Orleans once again became a top Super Bowl contender and they have remained so ever since.
However, the narrative surrounding the former University of Tennessee star was a much different one last year during the 2019 Season; as injuries to both his knee and ankle seemed to limit his overall effectiveness and somewhat diminished his heavy influence upon the productivity of the Saints running game.
— The Checkdown (@thecheckdown) September 30, 2019
Kamara struggled last season in the opinion of many NFL observers and analysts, as he finished the year with 171 rushes for 797 yards and five touchdowns; while additionally catching 81 passes out of the backfield for 533 yards and another TD, in receiving.
While he actually only wound up missing two games and still had 14 total starts, the injuries clearly robbed him of his typical ‘explosiveness’ — and his decline in yards per catch from 8.5 down to only 6.6 yards per reception — was an indication of just how much that he was affected and hampered by them.
Nevertheless, Kamara remains undaunted by last year’s disappointing results, and this current off-season he has been putting himself through a series of some unique training methods, several of which have been well-publicized and have since become wildly popular on Social Media.
This Alvin Kamara balance drill is wild 🤯 @brgridiron
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) April 25, 2020
— The Checkdown (@thecheckdown) April 17, 2020
The variety of different methods are part of a concerted effort on the part of himself and his trainers, as a way to further enhance his biggest traits (his core strength and notable balance) in the hopes that it will make him one of the more elusive RB’s in the entire NFL (lateral or “side-to-side” movement, as much as vertical or running “downfield”).
How Kamara fares in the upcoming season ahead will certainly have a direct impact upon the way in which the Saints organization approaches offering a him a potential new contract, with 2020 being the final year of his current contract that he originally signed as a rookie.
Last month, Carolina Panthers All-Pro RB Christian McCaffrey — who most experts consider to be the undisputed #1 RB in the entire NFL — was given a 4-year, $64 million extension that will pay him a whopping $16 million per season, an almost-unheard of number for the RB position in this current era. But McCaffrey hasn’t experienced any significant injuries since entering the NFL, and that factor most definitely gave Panthers management the reassurance that such a substantial financial investment was well-worth the money.
What makes #Panthers HB Christian McCaffrey one of the best in the business? He’s the ultimate offensive chess piece with elusiveness, patience, and vision. He runs hard with exceptional quickness and I think he could even be a successful WR if restricted to just that #NFL pic.twitter.com/kkKpYvtjs3
— Tommy (@tmacdraft24) May 19, 2020
Pretty sure if you look up the definition of versatile in the dictionary a picture of Christian McCaffrey pops up…
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) May 19, 2020
Clearly the contract given to McCaffrey will impact the Saints’ contract negotiations with Kamara, who undoubtedly will be seeking to land a new deal which would pay him similar numbers. That said however, his injury struggles last year likely have decreased his overall value; and the Saints as of now appear to be taking a “wait-and-see approach” until they are able to see how the season ahead ultimately unfolds.
New Orleans.Football analyst Nick Underhill says that at this point in time, Kamara appears to be willing to play this season whether he gets a new offer from Saints management or not, and is hoping or “banking” on the fact that a season of production equal to or more than the numbers that he put up during the first two seasons of his career, will earn him an offer at least somewhere close to what McCaffrey was given.
Underhill further notes that keeping a RB on a 2nd contract always comes with a great risk, because as mentioned above: NFL RB’s take so much physical punishment play after play that it shortens the length of their professional careers; which eventually can leave a team proverbially “left holding the bag”.
The Saints have made their fair share of unwise or outright bad investments on some players throughout their most recent history, and while Kamara seemingly would actually be a good investment in that particular regard; the last thing that the organization wants to do is to get ‘stuck’ with a player that despite being extremely talented and is one of the very best players at his position, could potentially become a liability if he’s ultimately unable to avoid any further injury issues going forward.
It’s the whole reason why many NFL teams have now implemented or transitioned to a “running back by committee” approach, with a player at the position needing to have the distinctive capability / necessary skill-set, to catch the ball out of the backfield since head coaches and offensive coordinators place much more emphasis and focus on that particular role, than ever before.
As any “old school” NFL fan over the age of 40 will quickly tell you: the RB position used to be the one that little kids everywhere wanted to play, because it was the most popular or glamorous spot on the offensive side of the football.
They were simply trying to imitate their real-life heroes, who back in those days featured names such as O.J. Simpson, Franco Harris, Earl Campbell, or even the Saints’ late 1970’s famous 1-2 duo of RB’s Chuck Muncie and Tony Galbreath, who were known by the popular nickname of “Thunder and Lightning”.
33. BATTERED RAMS
Sept. 24, 1978
Houston RB Earl Campbell runs over the Rams LB Isiah Robertson and eventually gets his shirt ripped off.
Factoid: In the booth analyzing the game was the great Jim Brown, who commented: “The Rams think they’re still playing Tony Dorsett.” pic.twitter.com/euJDhn4JGf
— Gil Brandt (@Gil_Brandt) August 3, 2019
— Kevin Gallagher (@KevG163) April 25, 2017
In today’s modern-day NFL, there are still top-caliber RB’s who go on to quickly become “superstars” (like Kamara and McCaffrey), but their overall durability and average shelf-life continues to diminish rapidly, and as a result the financial value which teams place on the position, has lowered the bar more than it ever has before.
Bottom line: with the Saints facing the prospect of getting their stiffest challenge in the past few seasons from the other teams within their own division (specifically the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and 6-time Super Bowl champion and new starting QB Tom Brady), winning a 4th straight NFC South Division title could be a much more difficult task in 2020 than it has been previously.
In other words, this upcoming season ahead eventually could become a “survival of the fittest” — meaning that Kamara ‘s durability and his efforts to remain healthy and relatively injury-free — ultimately will be a huge key to their success in 2020….
Barry Hirstius is a semi-retired journalist, who has worked previously as a sports editor and columnist. Barry is a New Orleans native who grew up as a fan of the Saints while attending their games as a young boy during the early 1970’s, uptown at the old Tulane Stadium. He is also the proud Grandfather of two beautiful young girls, Jasmine and Serenity. Follow him on Twitter: @BarryHirstius