CHARLOTTE – When Alvin Kamara scored the Saints' fourth and final touchdown in their 21-point victory over the Panthers in Week 3, few took note of the rookie's first NFL touchdown. Since then, he's been impossible to miss.
Unless you're a defender.
"He's not a 6-foot-5, 250-pound running back, but he's breaking a lot of tackles with his elusiveness and his ability to shake off the tackles," safety Kurt Coleman said of the Saints' 5-10, 215-pound breakout star.
According to Pro Football Focus, Kamara ranks first in elusiveness among all running backs, and his 40 broken tackles are third most in the league. That number becomes even more impressive when you consider he's only touched the ball 131 times and has played more than 50 percent of snaps in just three of 11 games.
"Obviously he's good in space, but his ability to break tackles and make guys miss and bounce off guys is unique," linebacker Luke Kuechly said. "The thing I've noticed about him is his ability to use his hand on the ground to keep himself up."
Added Coleman: "He'll take a hit and he kind of goes limp to a side but he keeps his balance with the other half of his body. It's crazy cause guys kind of fall off him."
For his part, Kamara recently told reporters, "I kind of go into 'Matrix' mode," referencing the movie whose main character can move in slow motion while the rest of the world speeds by.
"It's not a full head of steam all the time," he continued. "It's calculated, like, 'I'm going to slow down a little bit, make him think I'm cutting back, and then speed up.' There's a lot of down-shifting, up-shifting."
Kamara's star turn has obviously taken the league by surprise since most teams passed up on the former Tennessee back multiple times in the NFL Draft. That list includes the Saints, who picked three players before trading up to take Kamara in the third round.
"If you re-drafted today, I'm sure his selection and round would be entirely different," Saints head coach Sean Payton said this week.
Sure, who wouldn't want a guy who's doing all this with only a handful of professional games under his belt?
- Leads the NFL with 7.1 yards per carry
- Is second among non-kickers with 56 points scored
- Is fifth with 1,094 yards from scrimmage, including an NFL-best 777 since Week 7
- Has scored nine touchdowns, tied for second most in the league
- Is the first Saints rookie to score a touchdown in five straight games
- Was named the NFL's Offensive Rookie of the Month in November with league highs of 594 scrimmage yards and six touchdowns
- Has won Rookie of the Week four times, including three straight weeks (he could make it four on Friday after piling up 188 yards and two touchdowns against the Rams)
For what it's worth, it's not like the Panthers ignored Kamara in the pre-draft process. They had him in for a visit but turned their focus to other positions after grabbing Christian McCaffrey in the first round. Now Carolina will face Kamara twice a season.
The Saints have previously had success with multi-dimensional players like Reggie Bush and Darren Sproles, but their backfield is arguably more dangerous than ever. Kamara is still ceding most snaps to Mark Ingram, who's fifth in the league in rushing and just behind Kamara with the sixth-most scrimmage yards.
Kamara isn't just a scatback, though. His ability to run between the tackles basically makes him and Ingram interchangeable. But Kamara's versatility can really mess with a defense.
"The Saints are doing a really good job of finding ways to get him the football," linebacker Thomas Davis said. "It's not just lining him up in the backfield; it's not just splitting him out wide. They're doing a variety of things to get him the ball."
Proof of that is another Pro Football Focus stat that says Kamara has played 219 snaps in the backfield, 50 split wide, 46 from the slot and seven at tight end. So in Sunday's key NFC South matchup, the Panthers will have to know where Kamara is at all times. They'll then need to wrap up and bring down "The Matrix."
"He's very smooth and he makes it look easy. It's effortless for him. It's like he's just gliding. It's not like he's twitchy fast, but he makes guys miss," Kuechly said.
"I haven't seen a guy like him in a while."