Heading into Week 15’s matchup against the Arizona Cardinals of the 2016 season, New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton spent time complimenting all-purpose running back David Johnson.
Payton raved about Johnson’s versatility as a rusher and receiver, pointing out how such a player places stress on a defense, much like when the Saints had Reggie Bush and Darren Sproles.
“I think you are always in the business of looking for someone like that,” Payton said on Dec. 15. “I think it just creates problems for the defense and it gives the quarterback when you have a sure-handed matchup that’s generally running routes between the numbers, there’s a comfort level in that.”
Payton’s search for a player out of the backfield possessing those attributes effectively concluded Friday night when the Saints traded up in the third round to secure Tennessee running back Alvin Kamara with the 67th overall pick.
“That has been a key element in our offense over the last 11 years and Sean and our offensive coaches have a great ability to take advantage of the type of talent that Alvin and the predecessors here have had,” general manager Mickey Loomis said. “So to fill that role with a player of this caliber, we’re pretty excited about. Obviously, that’s why we made a trade to come and get him.”
Still, the Saints likely experienced anxious moments leading to the third round with Kamara, one of the top rated running backs of the draft, still on the board.
Payton revealed Saturday during a postdraft news conference that the Saints discussed pulling the trigger on Kamara with the 42nd overall pick, which the team eventually used on safety Marcus Williams.
“We discussed it a lot,” Payton said. “There are a handful of players you just have a clear vision for and he was one of those guys, extremely smart and versatile.”
The 5-foot-10, 214-pound Kamara had a productive two seasons at Tennessee (2015-16), amassing 1,977 yards of total offense (1,294 yards rushing, 683 yards receiving) with 23 touchdowns.
He can also contribute as a punt returner after recording 26 returns for 284 yards and a touchdown over two seasons at Tennessee.
The Saints had a close look at Kamara during Tennessee’s Pro Day workout, but it took a little prompting because the then-draft prospect appeared content to stand by his Combine numbers.
“I said I want to see you do some things here, stuff that we do,” Payton said, “and fortunately for him he ran in and put his cleats on and came back out.”
Payton then put Kamara through a variety or receiver routes and catching punts, all of which left a lasting impression on the Saints head coach.
“We got on the phone yesterday (Friday night) and said those might have been the best 11 routes or the best decision to go get your cleats on that you made in a long time,” Payton said with a wide grin. “He’s real smart and I think he has a lot of versatility.”
Kamara joins a crowded backfield, of course.
The Saints signed Adrian Peterson to a two-year deal to complement Mark Ingram, and the team brought back Travaris Cadet on a one-year deal to go along with Daniel Lasco and Marcus Murphy.
Nevertheless, the Saints already know how to utilize Kamara’s unique skill set.
“He’s that type of player that gives you a lot of different versatility and we just had a real high grade on him in that role,” Payton said. “I think he will play on fourth down in the kicking game. I think he has real good makeup and IQ. I think he will be a good fit for our team and our system in that room. That was a pick we were excited about.”
By Herbie Teope firstname.lastname@example.org,
NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune