Saints rookie Kamara proves to be immediate difference maker

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Alvin Kamara
Running back Alvin Kamara scores the first of his two touchdowns in a 31-21 victory for the Saints over the Panthers (Photo: Parker Waters).

NEW ORLEANS — The New Orleans Saints turnaround began last spring in Knoxville, Tenn.

That’s when coach Sean Payton and associates attended private workouts with nearly a dozen University of Tennessee players that were eligible for the upcoming NFL draft.

But Payton left determined to add one player — running back Alvin Kamara — to his roster. When the draft rolled around, New Orleans traded up to get the multi-faceted runner in the third round.

It was a steal.

At the time, the magnitude of the steal wasn’t apparent, except maybe to Payton, who had signed free agent Hall of Fame-to be running back Adrian Peterson just a few days before the draft.

The Saints gave up a seventh-round pick in that draft and a second-round pick in the 2018 draft to get the 67th pick from San Francisco. That brought them Kamara, whose performance in the first quarter of the season convinced New Orleans to trade Peterson to Arizona because he was the third-best back on a team that didn’t have enough touches for more than two.

We’re now three-quarters of the way through the season and Kamara is the favorite to be the NFL offensive rookie of the year.

Kamara scored two touchdowns Sunday as the Saints reasserted their control of the NFC South with a 31-21 victory against the Carolina Panthers in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

Both teams entered the game with 8-3 records atop the division, but Sunday’s win completed a sweep of the series against Carolina and gave New Orleans a de facto two-game lead over the Panthers.

The Saints clinched their first winning season in four years after three consecutive 7-9 finishes.

They also have a standard two-game lead over the Falcons, who they face Thursday night in Atlanta for the first of two meetings between the teams in a span of 17 days.

It’s hard to imagine that New Orleans would control the division as it does without Kamara. He leads the team in yards from scrimmage (1,220) with remarkable balance between yards gained rushing (606) and yards gained receiving (614).

He has rushed for seven touchdowns and caught four touchdown passes for a team-best 11 touchdowns.

The conventional wisdom was that Kamara would fill a role similar to that of Reggie Bush and Darren Sproles earlier in coach Sean Payton’s tenure, meaning his versatility would make him an effective third-down back and a complement to incumbent 1,000-yard rusher Mark Ingram II and Peterson.

That notion greatly undersold Kamara’s ability. As good as Bush and Sproles were — and they were both very good and vital components of very good teams — they weren’t as versatile as Kamara is.

Yes, Kamara can catch passes and run the ball, making him an important weapon, especially on likely passing downs. But he has proven to be equally effective on first, second and third downs.

He can run between the tackles and break tackles. (See countless examples from this season.) He can make tacklers miss and out run them. (See the74-yard spring to the end zone against the Rams a week ago.

Two weeks ago against Washington he caught a pass and ran 18 yards for a late touchdown, then ran for an ensuing two-point conversion that led to an overtime victory.

On Sunday, Payton was determined to score a touchdown after New Orleans drove into the red zone on the game’s first possession. On fourth-and-goal from the 2 he gave the ball to Kamara, who use his speed and tackle-breaking ability to find the Poydras Street end zone.

“I felt confident in the play we had,” Payton said.

In the third quarter, Kamara ran 20 yards for another touchdown, which put the Saints in control with a 28-14 lead.

In the fourth quarter Kamara snared a Brees pass on a receiver screen and turned it into a 22-yard gain that enabled the Saints to run out the clock.

After Sunday’s win, quarterback Drew Brees cited Kamara’s ability to digest a pretty sophisticated offense to the point now where he has absorbed it all.

Kamara said last week that he simply “digests whatever’s put on my plate.” His plate is now a platter that’s fully loaded and digested.

Panthers coach Ron Rivera cited Kamara’s “elite ability” and Payton’s skill at implementing it into a complex scheme operated by a future Hall of Famer in Brees.

Ingram called Kamara “a monster” who’s “definitely the rookie of the year.”

He’s not only that, he’s the Saints most valuable player.

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Les East

Les East

CCS/Times-Picayune

Les East is a nationally renowned freelance journalist. His blog on SportsNOLA.com was named “Best Sports Blog” in 2016 by the Press Club of New Orleans. For 2013 he was named top sports columnist in the United States by the Society of Professional Journalists and Louisiana Sportswriter of the Year by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association. You can follow…

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