One of the most engrossing discussions I’ve had with NFL coaches this offseason centers around a predicament I faced when filling out the skill position slots on my All-Pro ballot at the end of last year. The ballot has four slots—two wide receivers, one running back and one flex—and three players were locked in: Texans WR DeAndre Hopkins, Cowboys RB Ezekiel Elliott and Kansas City’s Tyreek Hill—who could fill the wide receiver or “flex” category. The one remaining slot was either a wide receiver or flex slot, keeping all skill positions in contention.
Three players still stood for consideration:
Saints WR Michael Thomas
Saints RB Alvin Kamara
Panthers RB Christian McCaffrey
In making my decision, I started with Thomas vs. Kamara. Either Thomas would be the second wide receiver (keeping Hill as the flex) or Kamara would be the flex (moving Hill to wide receiver, with Elliott ensconced at running back). In my film notes, Thomas and Kamara appeared an almost equal number of times—the Saints’ offense got its dimension and flexibility from Kamara and much of its stability and sustainability from Thomas, who was football’s best pure possession receiver in 2018.
So I asked a few coaches who faced the Saints whether they feared Thomas or Kamara more, and the answer, unequivocally, was Kamara. He is regarded, almost unanimously, as the most dangerous running back in football right now. Coaches rave about Kamara’s speed and “contact balance”—his ability to not just break tackles, but to do so without getting knocked off his track—and they especially laud his receiving. Great as Le’Veon Bell is in the passing game, most coaches say Kamara is the only tailback who can truly run the ENTIRE route tree from anywhere on the field.
Kamara had the edge over Thomas, so now I brought McCaffrey into the debate. He’s not as versatile as Kamara, but McCaffrey’s 107 catches for 867 yards, in my mind, made him eligible for the “flex” position, which carries a frustratingly vague criteria. Given the praise for Kamara—who had 81 catches for 709 yards—I expected he’d easily beat out McCaffrey. But looking at Panthers film notes, McCaffrey showed up as often as Kamara and just as positively. Remove Kamara and the Saints’ offense contracts considerably, but remove McCaffrey and the Panthers’ offense practically ceases to exist.
A big reason McCaffrey showed up on film as much as the more dynamic Kamara is that McCaffrey played 91.3% of the snaps, while Kamara played 65.8% of snaps in meaningful games. But for All-Pro consideration, shouldn’t that mean something? It’s a marked difference in playing time.
I texted a few coaches again, laying out this dilemma and seeking their advice. Coaches who played against McCaffrey said he’s not quite as good as Kamara but he’s better than people think, and the two were close enough that the vote should go to whoever played the most, especially with one guy having played so much more than the other. So, I voted McCaffrey.
Later I shared this with NFL coaches at the Senior Bowl and combine, and everyone had an opinion. Sure McCaffrey played more, one coach said, but Kamara had only 25 fewer rushing attempts than McCaffrey. And yes, McCaffrey may have had bigger receiving numbers, but a lot of those came on checkdowns. Another countered that McCaffrey shouldn’t be discredited for checkdowns. In fact, Carolina’s offense is almost built on those throws, because it’s clear the Panthers teach their backs to catch the checkdown without fully turning around, so that he can easily get into a downhill run after the catch—and McCaffrey is superb there.
Another said that even when Kamara is not catching the ball, he still aids New Orleans’s passing game because defenses must center their coverage around where he aligns. Look at Michael Thomas’s 72-yard touchdown in Week 9 against the Rams (remember the cell-phone celebration?)—cornerback Marcus Peters got burned on that play in part because of confusion regarding L.A.’s double-team plan for Kamara (who, in empty sets, almost always aligns on the weak side with Thomas). Kamara got zero stats on the play, but his impact there was greater than a few McCaffrey-style dumpoff receptions.
Another coach said I punished Kamara for playing just 65.8% of the snaps, when in fact, for a running back, that’s a very respectable number. If Mark Ingram weren’t a Saint and Sean Payton didn’t believe in a running back rotation, Kamara would have played more. My counter was that I didn’t punish Kamara, I rewarded McCaffrey. The coach said that’s great, but when an opponent is gameplanning for the Saints, they don’t spend less time on Kamara than they would on McCaffrey just because Kamara plays less—in fact, a defense still spends considerably more time on Kamara because of his versatility. And, because he is a tick more explosive than McCaffrey, a coach is more afraid of Kamara’s home-run potential. Much of defensive gameplanning centers around trying to prevent home runs.
There was enough praise for Kamara in these Senior Bowl and combine conversations that, had I enjoyed these discussions at the time of the vote, I may have penciled in Kamara over McCaffrey. But then again, Kamara was fresher in people’s minds because the Saints had just made a playoff run. The All-Pro vote, of course, occurs at the end of the regular season.
Plus there was still the matter of the quarterback with whom each man plays. A field general like Drew Brees amplifies Kamara’s versatility, as Brees can check in and out of any play. Cam Newton rarely makes presnap checks—which, one could argue, is why McCaffrey is less dimensional in Carolina’s offense. One could also argue that Carolina’s offense is built around Newton’s designed runs, (not scrambles, which Newton, a tough and willing pocket passer, does much less than people think), and McCaffrey’s honed running style perfectly compliments Newton’s game.
In the end, I’m still satisfied with my vote for McCaffrey, and I never wavered in voting Elliott at running back, since Dallas’s playoff-bound offense 100% went through him. That said, if I were building an offense from scratch and got to pick any running back, I’d pick Kamara seven days a week. In fact, if I were building an offense around any non-quarterback player in general, I’d still pick Kamara over the likes of Odell Beckham, Julio Jones, Travis Kelce and other offensive stars.
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