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What the Hell Is Going on With Alvin Kamara and the Saints?

The star running back wants a new contract. Will New Orleans be able to give him one?

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There are eight days until the NFL season kicks off. Before it does, Alvin Kamara needs the Saints to make things make sense. Kamara won 2017 Offensive Rookie of the Year and made the Pro Bowl in each of his first three seasons, but the 25-year-old is entering the final season of a four-year, $3.8 million rookie deal and is scheduled to make $2.1 million in base salary. That discrepancy between his talent and his salary led to some drama, which began last week when Kamara started missing practices with unexcused absences. ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported this hold-in—called that because Kamara did show up, but did not practice—was in relation to the fourth-year tailback being unsatisfied with his current contract.

The situation has taken more twists and turns in the days since. Tuesday brought a mess of contradicting reports that made it seem like the Saints and Kamara were close to a deal one minute, or close to a trade the next. Here’s how it went down:

  • 4:17 p.m. ET: ESPN’s Josina Anderson reported that the Saints were open to trading Kamara.
  • 4:39 p.m. ET: Yahoo’s Charles Robinson reported that New Orleans was “comfortable” paying Kamara north of $12 million per season, which would make him one of the five highest-paid tailbacks in the NFL. Additionally, Robinson reported that Kamara was seeking a deal that’s closer in range to Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey, who signed a $64 million extension that averages $16 million per year—the biggest deal for a running back in NFL history.
  • 5:02 p.m. ET: NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport reported that neither Kamara nor his agent had asked for or demanded a trade, and Kamara had never threatened to hold out. He’d even been showing up to the Saints facility every day and thought progress was being made toward a new extension.
  • 5:05 p.m. ET: The Athletic’s Jeff Duncan reported that New Orleans’s first option was to sign Kamara to a long-term deal, “but only at the right price.” The Saints were seeking a first-round pick as a return in any potential trades. Duncan wrote that the team offered Kamara a four-year, $50 million deal.
  • 7:16 p.m. ET: NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero reported that Kamara began missing practices after receiving an epidural shot in his back last week.
  • 11:38 p.m. ET: Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio reported that the Saints called other teams to “gauge possible trade interest,” but that a new extension is expected to be agreed to by Monday.
  • 12:30 a.m. ET, September 2: ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler reported early Wednesday morning that New Orleans and Kamara weren’t far apart in negotiations and that Kamara “has not asked for Christian McCaffrey money.” He added that the Saints were open to trading Kamara for a first-round pick, “but things calmed down” after four teams inquired about his availability.

On Wednesday, Kamara arrived to practice, but Anderson reported that “a potential trade still remains on the table if top-round draft compensation is offered.” For now, the fire that blazed for most of Tuesday is only smouldering. Right now, it looks like a new contract is more likely than not. The Saints have been a perennial power for more than a decade and are expected to once again be one of the NFC’s top teams this year. They need Kamara in order to reach such heights in 2020; Latavius Murray and Ty Montgomery are good backups, but neither is capable of producing at Kamara’s level. New Orleans doesn’t have too many more chances to win a title, and Kamara is an essential piece to its all in push.

So what gives? Well, Kamara is coming off an injury-hampered 2019 season. He told the New Orleans Times-Picayune in August that against the Jaguars in Week 6, “I tore my knee basically.” Bleacher Report’s Master Tesfatsion revealed last month that Kamara had suffered a torn MCL in addition to a previously reported high-ankle sprain. Kamara played through both. “That was something I was dealing with the whole season,” Kamara told the Times-Picayune. “Had to miss some time, which I don’t like to do. Came back, tried to play as best I could, tried to manage it the best I could.”

Last season, Kamara was not as dynamic as he’d been in his first two seasons, but still managed 1,330 total scrimmage yards, which was a decline from his usual output. After managing 728 rushing yards (on a league-best 6.1 yards per attempt), 826 receiving yards, and 13 total touchdowns as a rookie, Kamara followed up with 883 rushing yards, 709 receiving yards, and 18 total touchdowns in Year 2. All of that production occurred while sharing the backfield with Mark Ingram, who departed for the Ravens before last season. But in Kamara’s first year as the Saints’ unquestioned no. 1 back, he wasn’t as effective, rushing for 797 yards on 4.7 yards per carry and logging 81 receptions for 533 yards. He scored just six total touchdowns.

In 2019, Kamara ranked 15th among NFL tailbacks in DVOA and 19th in defensive-adjusted yards above replacement (which measures running back value compared to a replacement-level player), according to Football Outsiders. As a rookie, Kamara ranked first in DVOA and third in DYAR; in 2018, he was fourth in DVOA and third in DYAR. He ranked seventh among running backs in Pro Football Focus’s wins above replacement metric last season. Kamara, when healthy, is undisputedly one of the league’s best running backs, capable of making plays as a runner out of the backfield and when split out wide as a receiver. The idea of the Saints being unwilling to shell out the cash to keep him long term, from the outset, is puzzling.

There are reasons an extension hasn’t been agreed to yet. First, the Saints likely have concerns about running back value. NFL tailbacks aren’t regarded as highly as they used to be due to football’s increasingly high reliance on the passing game and replacement-level tailbacks offering adequate production. There’s been plenty of recent star tailbacks who’ve seen their shine wear out sooner than expected, and found themselves hoping to revive their careers with a change of scene shortly after signing big deals.

Second, and arguably the bigger issue, is that the Saints’ future salary cap situation is unsavory. Spotrac currently projects New Orleans to be $78.9 million over the cap in 2021, with starting cornerback Marshon Lattimore, right tackle Ryan Ramczyk, and left tackle Terron Armstead all entering the final years of their contracts and due for big paydays. That projection comes before accounting for any potential effects the coronavirus pandemic could have on the cap. In short, money is expected to be tight.

The Saints are already $13 million over the salary cap for this season, according to Spotrac. This offseason, New Orleans handed backup quarterback/super gadget Taysom Hill—a 30-year-old who’s thrown 13 regular-season passes—a two-year, $21 million deal that includes $16 million in guarantees. While Hill serves a variety of roles, it’s unclear what the plan for his future involvement in the offense is. Prioritizing re-signing Hill before Kamara, who’s been more essential to New Orleans’s success, isn’t great optics. Nor does it seem to make all that much sense, even when considering running back value—unless Hill is going to assume starting quarterback duties once Drew Brees retires.

Because of his versatility, Kamara would be right to pursue a more lucrative deal than Titans star Derrick Henry, the comparatively more one-dimensional tailback who agreed to a four-year, $50 million deal earlier this offseason. The average annual amount of Henry’s deal is $12.5 million—only the Texans’ David Johnson ($13 million), the Jets’ Le’Veon Bell ($13.1 million), the Cowboys’ Ezekiel Elliott ($15 million), and McCaffrey ($16 million) earn a higher AAV at their position, per Over the Cap. It’s possible that Kamara will command money that rivals Elliott’s deal.

Regardless, reaching this point with so little time before the season kicks off is a strange twist in what’s due to be a strange year. If it results in Kamara getting paid what he desires, he probably won’t mind. Ultimately, the Saints likely won’t mind it so much, either.