Who’s The Next Alvin Kamara? (2018 Fantasy Football)
After last year’s epic display of rookie running backs, most of us are excited about this year’s crew. Three running backs finished in the top 10 in rushing. Leonard Fournette was not a big surprise but he was only third-best among rookies. Kareem Hunt won the NFL rushing title. Despite becoming the de facto number one after Spencer Ware’s season-ending injury, few believed that a third-rounder from Toledo could rise to the top. But the biggest surprise of them all was Alvin Kamara.
At the beginning of the 2017 season, New Orleans had a formidable starting one-two punch — Mark Ingram and Adrian Peterson. Kamara was listed as their number three back. He was to be used sparingly on third-down passing plays. In most redraft leagues he was a late-round flier at best. However, Peterson did not work out and over the course of the season, Kamara proved to be far and away the best running back on the team. His efficiency and elusiveness elevated him to the top. In the end, despite only having 120 carries, he finished as the fourth-best running back in fantasy points.
So now the question looms… who’s this year’s Alvin Kamara? History tells us that the chance of that repeating is low. But if it does happen and more importantly, if you can predict which running back achieves it, then the chances of you winning your fantasy league goes up exponentially.
I have four possible candidates based on their situations as well as the type of running back they can ultimately be. Best of all, each player will either get picked late in your draft or not at all. All are uncertain. The chance for any of them to fail is far greater than achieving guaranteed success. But if you are content with the rest your team and have room to take a chance on a late-round flier that could pan out, then why not? You could find yourself with the next Alvin Kamara. I have ranked the four from the longest shot to the most probable. And when I say probable, I am simultaneously whispering probably not. But one needs to take risks in order to reap the rewards.
4. Jaylen Samuels (PIT): Not Ranked
With the recent news of Le’Veon Bell on his last legs in Pittsburgh, I got even more excited for Jaylen Samuels. Please know first off, I am a Samuels truther, therefore I might gush more emphatically than most. I was shocked when Pittsburgh drafted James Conner so early in the draft last year, to be honest. Many believe he is the next in line if something should happen to Bell, but I am not convinced. Samuels is a better athlete and has proven to be more versatile like Bell. Also, he comes with a clean slate. Conner failed to impress last year before going on IR.
Samuels is interesting in so many ways. He was listed as a tight end at NC State, but also played H-back as well as running back. Back in early March, I wrote an article pleading Samuel’s case as a running back on Player Profiler. Pittsburgh evaluated him correctly, believing that he is, in fact, a running back. The fact that he is so multi-facet brings parallels to Bell. He is 6’0″ and 225 pounds, so he has the bell-cow build. He had a 20.2% college target share (97th percentile) and scored double-digit touchdowns during his three years of heavy use. He can run, receive, and adjust to new formations. You might even see him play tight end if injury-riddled Vance McDonald misses time. He’s faster than Bell and has more burst.
Keep your eye on him during training camp. I believe he will eclipse James Conner as the Steelers number two running back. Pittsburgh might run Le’Veon Bell into the ground, which makes him much more susceptible to injury. Or because they know Bell is gone after this year, Tomlin might want to give a player like Samuels more work and see what they have at the position. There’s also the drama concerning Bell. Who knows how he’s going to act on and off the field now that his deal was kiboshed. Samuels is the ideal guy to draft at the end and stash in both redraft and dynasty formats.
3. John Kelly (LAR): RB78
LA Rams’ John Kelly was one of those running backs that was highly-touted until the combine. He did not perform well there, and consequently, his draft stock fell. However, his college resume from (yes, the same school as Alvin Kamara) Tennessee is impressive considering he was on an anemic offense. In 2017, he had over 1,000 all-purpose yards. What is most tantalizing are his receiving stats. He had 36 receptions for almost 300 yards. Despite his poor athletic measurables, Kelly has the size (5’10”, 216-pounds) and the versatility to be an all-purpose back.
Initially, it appeared that Kelly’s landing spot was not ideal. Sure, he is behind Todd Gurley, arguably the best running back in the league. However, if Gurley misses time, Kelly is the next guy in line. Normally, it is a good rule of thumb to invest more in athletic players. However, there are many running backs who have challenged that notion. Kareem Hunt, Dion Lewis, Mark Ingram are all average to below-average athletes but have exceeded expectations in the NFL. Even Alvin Kamara’s athletic profile does not jump off the page. The Rams drafted Kelly for a reason. And at this point, who can dispute any decision that Sean McVay makes?
The great part about Kelly is no one is drafting him except maybe Gurley owners who want to draft him as a handcuff. However, if you confident with your team and want to take a chance, Kelly could be your guy. If Gurley goes down, Kelly’s stock will rise to the top. He’s on a great team with a great offensive line.
2. Jordan Wilkins (IND): RB63
Jordan Wilkins was a running back nobody was talking about before the NFL Rookie Draft. He wasn’t on the radar at all. Therefore, it was a surprise to many of us when he was drafted by the Indianapolis Colts in the fifth round. Then the fantasy football world started looking into Wilkins. Athletically, he is average and when compared to most of the starters in the league, he is subpar. He was sneaky good in college, though, playing at the University of Mississippi. In his final year, he rushed for over 1,000 yards, averaging 6.5 yards per carry. He also showed his versatility by catching 26 passes. He has the requisite build — 6’1″, 215 pounds — to be used heavily and joins a team without a clear-cut number one running back.
With the departure of Frank Gore, many assumed that Marlon Mack would take over. However, Mack did not plead his case last year. He only averaged 3.8 yards per carry. He had offseason shoulder surgery and might not be ready for Week 1. This has opened the door for everyone else on the team to seize the opportunity. Nyheim Hines is lightning in a bottle but is smaller and looks the part as the team’s satellite back. Wilkins looks to be the first and second-down option as well as being the player best suited for goal-line work. Now with Luck reporting to training camp and a bolstered offensive line, Wilkins is being set up for success.
If Mack misses the beginning of the season, the door is wide open for Wilkins to walk through and become the starter on day one. If he impresses, Mack might become a forgotten name. Be careful, though. Wilkins is on the radar. You will need to draft him. Therefore, if you believe in his situation, ability, and opportunity, or perhaps just think that Mack isn’t all that, you might want to be bullish and draft him a round earlier than his going price.
1. Kalen Ballage (MIA): RB74
If there were a running back that best mirrors Alvin Kamara in this draft, it is Kalen Ballage. His situation looks identical to Kamara’s in 2017. Kenyan Drake (Mark Ingram) and veteran Frank Gore (Adrian Peterson) appear to be the one-touch punch for the Miami Dolphins with Ballage (Kamara) being the third option. However, don’t be surprised if that changes like it did in New Orleans just a year ago.
To get a better feel for their similarities, check out an article I wrote for Player Profiler that examines the uncanny similarities between Kamara and Ballage. Here’s the skinny: both have deceptively decent college production and both were prolific pass-catchers. Both are built to be every-down backs (especially Ballage), and both have landed in better situations than what was originally perceived.
Ballage is definitely a dark horse. There are enough haters out there who question his rushing ability and his overall attitude. However, I am not convinced that Kenyan Drake is the answer. After less than a season, everyone is jumping on his bandwagon. Frank Gore is too old to be efficient and will be used sparingly. It would surprise me that Miami would want to invest that much in a player that will retire soon. Ballage is an athletic specimen who ran a 4.46 40-yard dash at the combine to match his 6’2″ 228-pound physique. Miami might not have the same run blocking unit as New Orleans had in 2017, but no one expected the LA Rams to go from 27th best in 2016 to third-best last year in that category either.
Rookie running backs are exciting because they represent the unknown. As fantasy owners, we know some will hit, some will meet expectations, and some will ultimately crash and burn. I am always a proponent of taking chances, especially when you have a solid foundation of high-floor players on your team. When you find yourself nearing the end of your draft, take a risk on one of these potentially ground-breaking players. He could be the difference-maker that separates your fantasy team from all the others.