The summer is here, meaning we're getting closer to the start of fantasy football drafts. Success in those drafts will come from landing terrific bargains in the middle to late rounds while avoiding players who could see their numbers decline compared to 2020. However, that latter exercise isn't easy, especially in the case of players who are among the elite at their position or are coming off breakout seasons in the stat sheets.
Case in point: In 2018, James Conner emerged into a fantasy superstar as the new lead running back in Pittsburgh. He finished sixth in fantasy points at the position even though he missed three games. That success, plus his versatile skill set, made him a first-round pick in most 2019 redrafts. Fantasy folks just trusted that because Conner was so good in his breakout year, he’d be just as good or better the following year. Unfortunately, those of you who sunk a first-rounder on him found out differently.
Conner missed six games in 2019, and his average stats per game went downhill. His yards per carry average dropped from 4.5 to 4.0, and his fantasy points per game average went from 21.5 to 14.6. The Pitt product finished a very disappointing RB35.
The point here is that few folks saw this coming because Conner was so good in 2018. That leads me to this series, aptly named “The Fantasy Case Against …” where I’ll do my due diligence in looking at players who everyone in fantasy land seems to think is a sure bet to remain uber-productive after finding a high level of success in past seasons.
I started the RB breakdowns with Derrick Henry; now, let's focus on Alvin Kamara.
Simply put, there wasn’t a better running back in fantasy football than Kamara. He had 40 more points than the next best runner (Dalvin Cook) while finishing with career highs in rushing yards (932), receptions (83) and total touchdowns (21). His 25.2 points per game average were also the best he's produced in his four sparking seasons in the NFL.
Did You Know?
Kamara has produced 326 receptions in his first 60 games (four seasons) in the league. That’s the most ever in NFL history. His 2,824 receiving yards are also an NFL record for a running back after their first four seasons. Kamara is tied for fourth in touchdown catches (15) at the position as well, trailing the likes of Chuck Foreman (18), Austin Ekeler (16), and Christian McCaffrey (16). Buffalo's Joe Cribbs had 15 in the 1980s.
On the flip side, Kamara ranks 118th in carries and 73rd in rushing yards all-time among running backs in their first four seasons. He does rank 15th in rushing touchdowns, but a large percentage of his total point production at the NFL level has come as a receiver. Any decline in his pass-catching stats would be a real problem.
Kamara is an explosive playmaker who has a four-year resume of success in the stat sheets. However, he has had the advantage of catching passes from a future Hall of Famer in Drew Brees. In the four seasons with Kamara, Brees threw the football to his running backs 28.1% of the time. That’s the most of any field general with at least 70 games, and it makes sense with a star like Kamara in the mix.
Brees’ projected replacement, Jameis Winston, has been on the complete opposite side of the spectrum when it comes to throwing to his running backs. From 2015-2019 as the starter in Tampa Bay, Winston threw it to his backs 16.4% of the time. That’s a far cry from what Brees had done, and it could be a cause for concern for Kamara.
The most catches a runner has had with Winston under center was Charles Sims, who caught 51 balls when Winston was a rookie. That’s a decent total, but we all know that a good pass-catching back can be an inexperienced quarterback’s best friend. In his next four seasons as a starting signal-caller, Winston’s top runner in terms of single-season catches is Jacquizz Rodgers. He had 38 receptions on 45 targets back in 2018.
The argument here is that Winston has never had a running back with the same level of pass-catching chops or playmaking skills as Kamara, but the numbers are concerning.
Winston might be the projected starter for the Brees-less Saints, but he’s no lock to hold off Taysom Hill. In fact, it was Hill who earned the starting job while Brees was out this past season. In his four starts, Kamara had 16 targets for a mere 10 catches. Of course, you can do the math, but a projected full-season catch total based on Kamara's games with Hill leaves a lot to be desired. What's more, Kamara had a mere six red-zone looks in those four games. That ranked tied for 36th among running backs.
That leads me to the final trend that could affect Kamara’s stock. Since 1960, a running back has scored 18 or more total touchdowns in a single season 52 times. The average drop in touchdowns the following season is eight. Almost half of those instances saw a dip of at least 10 touchdowns. A decline of fewer than five touchdowns happened only six times, while an actual increase in touchdowns occurred just six times (8.7%).
Kamara is part of this historical trend, as he scored 18 times in 2018 and saw his total drop to six the following season. What’s more, 28.5% of his touchdown total from a season ago came in one game (Week 16, six touchdowns against Minnesota).
The Saints will again bring back the combination of Payton and offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael. The running back position has been quite fruitful under this duo, as players have ranked in the top 12 a total of 13 times, including four top 5s and 11 top 10s. Payton also loves to throw the ball to his backs, as the position has finished with 69 or more catches 12 times. However, will this trend continues without Brees?
I’m not going to sit here and tell you that Kamara is going to be a bust. After all, he was the RB9 in his worst fantasy season, and he's still in the prime of his career. He is one of the league’s top playmakers, and it would be tough to predict him finishing outside of the top-10 running backs in fantasy land. However, I would also argue that Kamara will come with more risk without Brees. He’ll come with even more question marks if the Saints decide to open the season with Hill under center, but even the presence of Winston doesn’t guarantee that Kamara will duplicate his recent statistical successes.
The Fantasy Case Against ...
- RUNNING BACKS
- WIDE RECEIVERS
- TIGHT ENDS
Michael Fabiano is an award-winning fantasy football analyst on Sports Illustrated and a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association (FSWA) Hall of Fame. Click here to read all his articles here on SI Fantasy. You can follow Michael on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram for your late-breaking fantasy news and the best analysis in the business!