Alvin Kamara carrying fantasy torch as other rookie running backs fade

This was supposed to be a banner year for rookie running backs, but you couldn’t have even gotten odds this summer on Alvin Kamara not only topping the class but entering Week 14 16th in fantasy points per game among all rookie running backs since the merger, according to Pro-Football-Reference.

That Kamara is doing this without even any PPR bonuses given that receiving was supposed to be central to his value is even more shocking. He was also the 67th pick in the actual 2017 draft and a fantasy afterthought in most our our fake-football drafts in August given the Saints had a three-headed committee. Kamara was the third man.

But even with Mark Ingram also paying great dividends for his owners, Kamara is shining with over 1,200 scrimmage yards and 11 touchdowns. That’s all on just 146 touches. Kamara is averaging 1.31 fantasy points per touch. That’s a number that’s almost certain to regress but the problem is we’ve been saying this for weeks. There’s little teams can do to stop the Saints running game, though, with Drew Brees is at the controls. That means that the normal solutions, putting eight men in the box, are basically off the table. The Saints also don’t deploy gimmicks like the motion and atypical formations featured earlier this season when another third round pick, Kansas City’s Kareem Hunt, similarly dominated fantasy leagues.

While Brees has disappointed his fantasy owners, he’s perfect for those who have a stake in the Saints running game as the 38-year-old is still clearly at the top of his game, sporting a 104.2 passer rating (third in the NFL) and 8.1 yards per pass attempt (fourth). The key to Kamara’s continued viability will be the distribution of Saints touchdowns, which are 52.8% rushing vs. the NFL average of 34.4%. But Kamara is also a leading receiver with four scores via the air. Only four other rookies since the merger have at least seven rushing TDs and four receiving TDs: David Johnson (2015), Matt Forte (2008), Edgerrin James (1999) and Roger Craig (1983).

In the non-PPR fantasy points per game stat, Kamara (15.7) is joined by Leonard Fournette (15.0, 23rd among all rookie running backs since the merger) and Hunt (13.6, 38th, stunning given how little he’s done of late).

Let’s look at the prospects of the latter two going forward into the fantasy playoffs.

Both Fournette and Hunt are really struggling of late. Fournette since spraining his ankle in Week 6 has just 226 yards on 77 carries or 2.9 per tote. He has a TD, too. Hunt hasn’t found the end zone once since Week 3 (he had six scores through the third game). Hunt also had a rookie record 100-plus scrimmage yards in his first seven career games. But since then, he’s gained just 213 yards on 69 carries (3.1) and has 82 COMBINED receiving yards in five games.

Let’s look at Hunt first, since he was forecasted by me to be a league-winning player and has cratered to the point where his owners are now wondering whether to even start him this week. Since his slump began, the Chiefs are averaging a second-lowest 57.6 plays per game, 288 total. Hunt’s 84 touches equates to a 29% market share. Previously, the Chiefs averaged 60.6 plays per game, 424 total, and Hunt had 149 touches for a 35% market share. This combination of factors has cost Hunt an expected 22 touches or 4.4 per game. And of course there is the efficiency decline, too.

Hunt’s touchdown woes are largely explained by the Chiefs’ bizarre inability to get goal-line plays, three-yards or closer. They have six plays on the goal-line all season. The NFL average is  16.4. And 27.5% of these plays are rushing TDs. Like with Kamara, this is a trend that’s seemingly too bizarre to continue, yet does. I’d always bet the full-season stats, though this is arguably unwise with rookies — a case can be made that in the absence of any prior data, that the league has simply caught up with a rookie. Bottom line: I would still start Hunt and project him as a RB1 going forward.

The problem with Fournette is that he’s been battling injury and it would seem unsuccessfully. Therefore, his struggles seem less random than Hunt’s. He’s also saddled with a worse offense than Hunt (26 offensive touchdowns for Jacksonville compared with 29 for the Chiefs). And Fournette’s durability was a knock on him as a prospect.

This week is a tough matchup against the Seahawks (7th lowest 3.8 yards allowed per carry), and then the 49ers and Texans are also fairly stout against the run (16th and 8th, respectively, per carry). Hunt’s schedule is much better, facing the 13th (Raiders), 31st (Chargers) and 25th (Dolphins) defenses in rushing efficiency.

It’s a controversial case to make, but I’d still put Hunt ahead of Fournette rest of season, though Fournette’s touch floor still makes him a clear starter for any team that owns him.