Saints coach Sean Payton didn't have to think long when explaining how his offense has evolved over the past decade.
Some of the plays and players have expanded or changed. The league has shifted, which has necessitated adaptation. But Payton's offense morphs with its tight ends and running backs. Different backs and tight ends allow New Orleans to use different formations and personnel groupings.
Last season, not a single player ran a post or corner route out of the backfield. Angle routes, outs, slants — all of those were on the table. But a corner route? That was unheard of until Week 1 of this season against the Minnesota Vikings, when Alvin Kamara came out of the backfield and ran one about 10 yards down the field. The play was evidence of how the offense had already changed and how the Saints have new ways of putting together their route concepts.
That was the dream when the team moved up to select Kamara in the third round of the NFL Draft. The Saints saw his ability out of college, and it has only gotten better in the past few months.
“I think his receiving skills were excellent coming out of college, so it’s the nuances of what we do pertaining to our offense specifically, (the) timing element with Drew (Brees) and the formations,” Payton said. “Those would be (the growth areas) when it comes to his receiving skillset.”
Kamara has been a revelation through four weeks. It became clear how much the Saints think of him when they traded Adrian Peterson, whom the team thinks can still be effective, to the Cardinals this week. That's as big of a vote of confidence any player can receive.
“We basically had two feature backs, with Mark (Ingram) and Adrian,” Brees said. “Obviously, that was before drafting (Alvin) Kamara and obviously seeing the contributions that he has been able to make and (his) expanded role. There are only so many balls to go around, and obviously I think there was just an odd man out, which seemed to be Adrian.”
The question is whether the rookie is ready to take on an even bigger role.
Kamara is still establishing himself as a runner (15 attempts, 83 yards) but has broken a handful of big runs. The evidence, however, shows he should be ready for whatever the Saints throw at him.
Kamara has been at his best running toward the right side of the line and has done the bulk of his work on dive plays (seven runs, 27 yards, according to Sports Info Solutions), which shows he should have the ability to run between the tackles more often.
However, one thing he’ll need to show is that he can run out of various looks and personnel groupings. Of Kamara’s 15 carries, 11 have come with five defensive backs on the field, meaning there are often fewer players in the box when he’s handed the ball. He’ll need to prove he can still make plays when the running game is keyed on, but it shouldn’t be an issue. Of Kamara’s 103 runs last season at Tennessee, 38 came with four defensive backs on the field, according to Sports Info Solutions. He gained 238 yards (6.3 yards per carry) and scored five touchdowns on those plays.
Kamara is already productive as a receiver, particularly out of the backfield. He’s made a steady living on screen and swing passes, catching 12 of 13 targets for 60 yards, according to Sports Info Solutions. Similarly, he's been effective on curls (four of five for 23 yards).
Kamara has lined up often as a receiver but has only made three catches when split out or operating from the slot. Still, he’s shown the ability to run a multitude of routes, and his presence has already started to create match-up problems for the opposition.
“The defenses got to respect him," running backs coach Joel Thomas said. "It’s not, ‘Hey, I’m releasing a back out of the backfield. Standard flat routes and a choice here and there.' They got to defend him a legit receiver. Then all of the sudden, you pop him in there, and he’ll pop a 25-yard touchdown. It kind of puts the defense in a predicament.”
All of this is exciting for the present and the future, and that’s why New Orleans needed to clear things up and make sure no one was going to get in the way of Kamara's touches. Now he will have even more of an opportunity to show what he can do.
“Something positive is happening whenever he’s touching the football,” Thomas said. “He doesn’t have a rookie mentality. He’s kind of like an old soul. He just belongs in this situation.”
And the ball belongs in his hands.