Welcome to the 19th installment of the “The Wrong Read,” an article series that reflects on recent podcast episodes, pushing the ideas discussed on the podcasts to their logical conclusions and offering some further thoughts on the topics broached by the guests and hosts. Derrick Henry just helped lead the Titans to a weird and unexpected playoff victory. Here’s a piece about what the future may hold for him, and how to play it from a fantasy perspective.
It’s somewhat puzzling to me that in all of 2017 I never once wrote about Alvin Kamara in this space. But, no time like the present, especially considering he was discussed at length on the first episode of the RotoViz Season Review. In that episode, Colm Kelly and Anthony Amico discussed what happened in the NFC South in 2017. Kamara, of course, was a revelation. We had expected him to do relatively well given his landing spot—ranking him as the 14th rookie overall and the fifth rookie RB in our post-draft rankings1—but nobody could have foreseen the season he did end up having.
Kamara’s Unprecedented 2017
As pointed out on the NFC South Review episode, he had over 314 PPR points on only 212 total touches (including kickoff returns). Here’s the list of all RBs in the history of the NFL to have more PPR points on fewer touches:
So Kamara’s 2017 was pretty good. Kamara was good enough in 2017 to get into the first-round conversation in 2018—some are even calling him the first overall pick in 2018. In early 2018 DRAFT Best Ball Leagues his current ADP is 4.9. But, we must note that he did all this by being extremely efficient. In fact, since 2000, only five player seasons have gone for more fantasy points over expectation.2 The question then becomes: can Kamara sustain this level of efficiency?
Is Kamara Bound to Regress?
On the one hand, rushing fantasy points over expectation has a year-over-year adjusted R-squared of just 0.117. And receiving fantasy points over expectation are even worse at 0.013. In other words, there is almost no relation between efficiency in one season and efficiency in the next season. On the other hand, each of the player seasons that were more efficient than Kamara’s 2017 were followed up with plus efficiency the next season. Of course, with only five such seasons, it’s not exactly a large sample. But still we can’t rule out the possibility that LaDainian Tomlinson is actually good at football. So is Kamara in that class of RB?
He may not need to be so efficient to return first-round value if he can increase his volume. Does Kamara have a path to increased volume? In 2017 he split time with Mark Ingram. Unfortunately it doesn’t appear that will change much in 2018. Ingram’s contract would have voided if he were selected All Pro, but it was Kamara who got the All-Pro nod instead. Therefore, in all likelihood, Ingram will remain with the Saints for at least one more year.3 So Kamara’s 120 carries in 2017 might be close to his upper limit in 2018.
Kamara also had 101 targets in 2017, making him New Orleans’ No. 2 receiving target. There could be some room for Kamara to increase his receiving volume slightly, as New Orleans ran an unusually run-heavy offense in 2017. If the Saints regress toward their mean of the previous several seasons, the overall passing volume could bump up Kamara’s targets. But even if he can’t increase his targets, the fact that he gets so many of his touches in the passing game actually bodes well for his ability to remain so efficient.
Since 2000, the average RB carry has scored about 0.5 fantasy points. However, the average RB target has scored about 1.3 fantasy points. Kamara averaged just over 1.4 fantasy points per opportunity, so his efficiency is bound to regress somewhat. But it would not regress as much as a RB who gets most of his work in the running game. In fact if Kamara’s targets increase more than his rushing attempts, then his expected efficiency (in terms of fantasy points per opportunity) would also increase. So Kamara’s efficiency may be more sustainable than one would initially think.
How to Play It in 2018
However, in 2017, Kamara outperformed expectations by nearly 100 fantasy points. It would be foolish to expect that again. Yet without a dramatic increase in his opportunity, the only way he could return value as a first-round pick—much less the first overall pick—is to have another outrageously efficient season. We’ve seen some RBs repeat seasons of extreme efficiency, so for Kamara to do so would not be unprecedented. And Kamara’s game lends itself to high fantasy-point-per-opportunity outputs. He’s already accomplished some unprecedented feats. Still, it would be a mistake to predict that Kamara could repeat his 2017 season without some personnel change in New Orleans. He needs a lot to go right to return a first-round value, making him a high-risk pick (at least in redraft leagues). Proceed with caution.
On the other hand, Shawn Siegele just took Kamara with his first-round pick in a dynasty mock draft with other RotoViz writers, so what do I know?