Fantasy Football: How Much Will the Saints’ Starting Quarterback Affect Alvin Kamara in 2021?
Alvin Kamara has been a fantasy superstar since debuting in 2017, finishing as the RB3, RB4, and RB12 in half-PPR leagues from 2017-19 before finishing as top overall running back last year, per FantasyPros.
While he'll never come close to leading the league in carries, he's more than made up for that through his consistent volume through the air, averaging over 100 targets per season over this four-year span while exceeding 80 receptions all four times.
With numbers like that, it isn't surprising that Kamara is flying off the boards as the number three overall pick over the past two weeks in NFC drafts, a PPR-scoring site. The consensus average draft position on FantasyPros isn't much different, with Kamara getting flip-flopped with Derrick Henry and going fourth overall across all scoring formats.
However, 2021 will throw a wrench into Kamara's outlook for the first time. His robust receiving workload has always been attached to Drew Brees, and with Brees retiring this offseason, we're entering some uncharted territory at quarterback. The Saints' starting quarterback position will be filled by either Jameis Winston or Taysom Hill, two quarterbacks with entirely different skillsets who could alter Kamara's fantasy outlook.
Should we be concerned with Kamara's usage moving forward? Or should we assume that Sean Payton and the Saints will find a way to keep their star running back just as involved as ever, regardless of who is under center?
Last year fell perfectly in line with what we've come to expect from Kamara, with the Saints' star running back averaging 12.5 carries and 7.1 targets per game. Only Kamara and J.D. McKissic exceeded 100 targets at the position with 107 and 110, respectively, and no other running back reaching even 80.
Obviously, Kamara lags far behind other top running backs when it comes to rush attempts, but it's worth noting just how valuable those targets are in even half-PPR formats.
Our Jim Sannes did a study a few years back that concluded that a target has roughly twice the value of a carry on FanDuel, which uses half-PPR scoring. If we look at Kamara's 187 rushes and 107 targets through this lens as "adjusted opportunities," he accumulated a whopping 401 last season.
By comparison, Derrick Henry and Dalvin Cook, who both exceeded 300 carries last year, logged 440 and 420 adjusted opportunities, respectively. And as you might expect from the consensus first overall pick, Christian McCaffrey, he racked up a ridiculous 571 adjusted opportunities in his healthy 2019 season.
McCaffrey's volume has a long way to fall in order for anyone else to catch up -- and it sounds like his usage will remain mostly unchanged, too -- but Kamara is in the same ballpark as the other two, showing that he's very much deserving of a top-four pick if he maintains his lofty receiving work.
Kamara also checked out from a yardage perspective, as only Henry and Cook had more yards from scrimmage than Kamara's 1,688 in 2020.
Lastly, he was a touchdown scoring machine after racking up a career-high 21 scores, a wild course correction after scoring just 6 in 2019. We should expect that sky-high mark to regress and fall between those two extremes, and it's not like Kamara will be a goal-line hog with both Taysom Hill and Latavius Murray getting their share of red-zone touches. But it also wouldn't be surprising to see him hit double-digit scores for the fourth time in his career, and numberFire's model projects him for 16.7 total scores -- still a very fantasy-friendly mark!
So, yeah, Kamara is pretty good. But you knew this already! The real question is whether he can enjoy the same success and volume with Winston or Hill under center.
The Post-Brees Era
Many initially assume that Winston would take over the reins this season, but Payton continues to suggest that this is a true competition between the two quarterbacks, so we can't rule out Hill emerging as the starter.
Let's take a look at Hill first then, as he's the one most are worried will have a negative impact on Kamara. And last year's data certainly raises some red flags.
Hill started four games when Brees was injured in Weeks 11-14 last season, and in those starts, Kamara ended up as the RB22, RB37, RB11, and RB10 in half-PPR formats, averaging 13.0 fantasy points over that span compared to 22.4 for the season. While his carries remained steady and about where we would expect (12.5 per game), his targets fell off a cliff in the first three games (1, 2, and 3 targets) before jumping up to 10 in Hill's last start.
The dual-threat quarterback also scored four rushing touchdowns in those weeks -- all from the 10-yard line or closer -- yet another troubling issue in this scenario.
Lastly, Hill's pass attempts seemed largely dictated by game script, tallying 23 and 16 attempts in wins decided by multiple scores in Week 11 and 12 while getting up to 37 and 38 attempts in the one-score affairs of Weeks 13 and 14. It probably isn't a coincidence that Kamara's 10-target outing came in a negative game script, with the Saints trailing nearly the entire game in a loss to the Eagles.
That's a worrying trend for Kamara's target floor, particularly if Hill is vulturing the occasional goal-line score on top of it.
Now, we probably shouldn't completely panic over a four-game sample, but it does suggest that Kamara is much less likely to match his previous output with Hill -- at least on an every-week basis.
As for Winston, he made all of 11 pass attempts for the Saints in 2020, so we're mostly guessing when it comes to him, but it stands to reason that as the more traditional pocket passer, he's the far more likely candidate to utilize Kamara in a similar manner to Brees.
However, it's well known that Brees didn't exactly throw deep very often in the latter stages of his career, and Kamara was a direct beneficiary. According to PFF, Brees only threw deep passes (20-plus yards) on 6.7% of his attempts, which ranked 38th out of the 38 players who attempted at least 20 deep throws. While Brees' deep pass percentage was a bit higher in Kamara's other seasons, he still consistently ranked low in this area at 34th (2019), 20th (2018), and 25th (2017).
On the other hand, Winston was much more willing to air it out in Tampa Bay, particularly under Bruce Arians in 2019. That season, he ranked 4th in deep pass rate (15.8%) and was, in reverse chronological order, 16th, 7th, 16th, and 18th in his four prior seasons. Obviously, those numbers came under different coaching staffs and personnel, so we could see an entirely different Winston in New Orleans, but it isn't outlandish to think Kamara could see a slight dip in targets compared to his time with Brees.
But in the grand scheme of things, there's no question that the Saints would pass far more often with Winston, which would lead us to believe that we're more likely to get the usual Kamara stat line with this pairing.
Alvin Kamara's 2021 Fantasy Football Projection
Despite the change at quarterback, numberFire's projections remain quite bullish on Kamara. Our model sees him as the RB4, accumulating 229.5 carries for 1,068.9 yards and 12.5 scores on the ground, along with 102.1 targets leading to 72.3 receptions, 669.0 receiving yards, and 4.2 touchdowns.
However, numberFire's projections have Winston and Hill splitting duties, and the most likely scenario is that one of the two will be the main guy. The previously mentioned evidence would point to two entirely different outcomes for Kamara.
To try and illustrate what Kamara's line might look like under each quarterback, I asked our Brandon Gdula to project a full 2021 campaign with Winston under center versus Hill taking over.
First, here's how the two quarterbacks shake out:
|Starting QB||Pass Att.||Pass Yds||Pass TD||Rush Att.||Rush Yds||Rush TD|
As you would expect, we see a significant uptick in passing attempts, yards, and scores under Winston, whereas Hill would do far more damage on the ground. No surprises there. For some context, Cam Newton and Kyler Murray logged 137 and 133 rushing attempts, respectively, in 2020.
But how would these stat lines affect Kamara? Note that Gdula's model has Kamara scoring fewer touchdowns in general compared to numberFire's -- so keep that in mind -- but what we're mostly looking at is the difference in usage.
|Situation||Rush Att.||Rush Yds||Rush TD||Targets||Rec.||Rec. Yds||Rec. TD|
This is precisely what I was afraid of. We may need to really temper expectations if Hill wins the starting job.
While Kamara's carries remain mostly unchanged under either scenario -- and that lines up with the evidence we saw earlier -- his targets plummet by 30 with Hill under center. The end result would be career-lows in both receptions and receiving yards by a significant amount, and keep in mind that the above numbers factor in the extra 17th game being added this year. Yikes.
And while not quite as dramatic a difference, Kamara would also experience a dip in rushing touchdowns, with Hill presumably stealing some goal-line touches.
The above stats would place Kamara at RB15 in Gdula's projections (half-PPR scoring). Even if you were to tack on some extra touchdowns, we would still be talking about a low-end RB1 at best.
Meanwhile, Kamara's receiving line with Winston is pretty much spot on with what we've seen in past seasons, suggesting that his production would mostly remain unchanged. In fact, 110 targets and 88 catches would both be career-highs, though that would be due in part to the added game.
So, what it boils down to is how you want to handle this data.
Ultimately, whether you draft Kamara could come down to how much you believe Winston will win the job, which remains the general expectation. Outside of maybe throwing downfield more often, there's little reason to think Winston and the Saints wouldn't prioritize Kamara as a primary weapon, leaving his fantastic ceiling intact.
Personally, due to the overall upside and talent of Kamara -- he was the top running back in 2020 after all -- if I'm drafting today, I'm willing to take my chances at his present ADP.
But it's no secret that Payton has always loved Hill as a player, so we also can't rule out Hill emerging as the surprise pick. If rumblings of Hill winning the job start cropping up later in the offseason, I would be very wary, and you might be better off jumping ship and letting someone else take the plunge.