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Alvin Kamara ready to help keep Saints rolling post-Drew Brees

METAIRIE, La. -- It is the type of afternoon that makes longtime locals and unsuspecting visitors curse out loud. With the humidity level keeping pace with the soaring temperature on the second day of Saints training camp, coach Sean Payton can't help but joke (we think) about cooking eggs on the sidewalk.

And yet, the heat is not the thing that wipes the perpetual smile from the face of Pro Bowl running back Alvin Kamara, who is known for his calm and cool. The culprit is another post-practice question about whether he will have to carry an increased workload this season following the retirement of Drew Brees, the future Hall of Fame quarterback who owns not only every major statistical passing mark in franchise annals but also league records for career completions and yards passing and the second-best totals for touchdown passes and completion percentage.

"I don't look at it as a load," says the 26-year-old Kamara, brushing back the notion as easily as he does the long braids that frame his face. "I look at as I'm doing what I've got to do to help my team. I'm doing my job. A load sounds like a burden, but for me it's a blessing. If I go from six carries a game to 12 carries a game, that's not bad. That's not a load. They're showing love."

There's a lot to love about Kamara, who was voted to the Pro Bowl in each of his first four NFL seasons, yet still could be labeled under-appreciated heading into Year 5 because of the limited attention being paid to the historical pace he is on. To focus on him ranking second in scrimmage yards and touchdowns since entering the league in 2017 as a third-round selection out of Tennessee is to miss the bigger picture that shows him standing shoulder to shoulder with several iconic backs. Consider:

  • His 59 touchdowns over his first four seasons trail only Hall of Famers Terrell Davis (61) and LaDainian Tomlinson (60).
  • His 326 receptions are an all-time high for a running back's first four years; with 33 more this season, he would establish the high-water mark for the first five seasons of a career.
  • He has had at least 700 yards rushing and 80 receptions in each of his four seasons, one shy of the career mark for such seasons set by Hall of Famer Marshall Faulk.

And yet, whenever the discussion is about the game's best back, Kamara typically is not mentioned, unless the focus is on fantasy leagues.

"Let's be honest," Faulk says by phone. "Unless you rush for 2,000 yards, they ain't talking about running backs much. But the way the game is being played now, you have to be able to play all three downs, and he does that."

There is a lot of Faulk in Kamara, an extremely cerebral player who is a significant threat as both a runner and a receiver. Faulk still doesn't like being identified as a running back. He calls himself a football player -- period -- someone who could impact the game in multiple ways. He ranked ninth in career rushing yards at the time of his retirement in 2007, and he still ranks No. 1 among running backs in both receptions (767) and receiving yards (6,875).

Kamara has a similar game. His 6,164 yards from scrimmage since entering the league trail only Dallas' Zeke Elliott during that time, and his 58 touchdowns from scrimmage are second to Todd Gurley. After signing a five-year, $75 million extension, he had his best individual season last year, rushing for 932 yards and adding 756 more on 83 receptions. His 21 touchdowns from scrimmage led all players. He likely would have gone over 1,000 yards rushing for the first time, but he missed the season finale after testing positive for COVID-19.

There is a perception that he could end up having to do even more this season with Brees gone, although privately, such talk irritates people within the organization. Brees missed nine games because of injury the previous two seasons, and the Saints won eight of them. There is confidence that former No. 1 overall pick Jameis Winston, who re-signed as a free agent this year after spending last season in New Orleans as a backup, or Taysom Hill, who was 3-1 as a starter last season, is more than capable of helping the Saints retain their status as one of the league's more efficient and potent offenses, even with wideout Michael Thomas out for several months following ankle surgery.

"We've got a lot of guys who can contribute," says Kamara. "My job as a running back and a leader is to make [the QBs'] job as easy as possible. So whatever they need."

Kamara has averaged 11 rushes and five receptions per game for his career. Payton, the offensive play-caller, doesn't sound eager to stray too far from that. He has built-in rest days for various players based on their age or health, with Kamara -- who dealt with ankle and knee issues in 2019 -- being one of them. He also is mindful of how he uses Kamara on Sundays.

"Sean always does a great job of going into games and managing that," said offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael. "We're not giving him every single rep. We've got other guys in the room that we feel good about."

The focus on sharing the offensive load is one reason Kamara doesn't put up even better numbers; he split time with Mark Ingram his first couple of seasons and with Latavius Murray the last two years. He doesn't say it, but his teammates are quick to point it out. "If given the targets, if given the carries that some premier backs get ... he'd have astronomical numbers," says defensive end Cam Jordan.

The biggest challenge for Payton might not be monitoring Kamara's touches; it likely is keeping the star engaged during the week. Kamara has a football IQ that is off the charts, something Payton first realized during a pre-draft on-campus workout in Knoxville. The Saints did not bring a running backs coach, so Payton handled Kamara himself. He even had him sit in the QB room for that meeting.

Conceptually, Kamara thinks like a quarterback. He knows not only what each player is supposed to do but why they are supposed to do it. There are times he doesn't need to hear the full play call to know what he is supposed to do. For instance, if it's a pass play and he hears the route the wideout is supposed to run, he knows automatically what he's supposed to do, because it's the only way the design makes sense.

"I look at things like a puzzle, and it's just got to fit," says Kamara, who liked to do jigsaw and crossword puzzles growing up. "If you put the wrong puzzle piece in the wrong place, it doesn't work. That's how I look at everything."

"If given the targets, if given the carries that some premier backs get ... he'd have astronomical numbers." -- Cam Jordan on Alvin Kamara

Kamara's ability to process information at 5G speed presents a challenge for Payton, who has to find ways to keep his young star from becoming bored. One way is by consistently using him at different points in the formation, both as a runner and a receiver. Even if Payton knows ahead of time the ball won't go to Kamara, at least he keeps Kamara's mind working. Payton also keeps him engaged via humor. There was the time he gave Kamara a fidget spinner and told him to spin it if he got bored in practice.

Payton experienced a similar situation while coaching Faulk at San Diego State, which is but one similarity between the players.

"Something else that reminds me of Faulk is, if Marshall knew you all had come to watch him, he wanted to do something that made you say, WOW!" Payton says. "Alvin is that same way."

Whether he will get more opportunities to show off remains to be seen, but Kamara has already proven his ability to do more with less.

Follow Jim Trotter on Twitter.

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