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JACKPOT: Sean Payton’s Gamble on Alvin Kamara Pays Off Big Time for the Saints

When the Saints traded up in the 3rd round of this past April's 2017 NFL Draft to secure University of Tennessee star running back Alvin Kamara with the 67th overall pick, it was considered to be a bit of a gamble by some observers, since New Orleans was willing to give up a coveted 2nd Round pick in next year's talent-rich 2018 Draft in order to land the 22-year year old.

The 5-foot-10, 214-pound Kamara had two productive two seasons with the Vols program (in both 2015 and 2016), tallying 1,977 yards of total offense (1,294 yards rushing, 683 yards receiving) along with 23 touchdowns.

But despite those impressive numbers, Kamara wasn't a "household name" nationally outside of the Knoxville area and the SEC.

But that slight gamble on the part of head coach Sean Payton and Saints team brass to move up and grab Kamara has paid off big time; as evidenced yesterday by Kamara being named the Pepsi NFL Rookie of the Week for his performance last Sunday in New Orleans' 20-0 shut-out win over the Miami Dolphins in London, England.

In fact, given Kamara's obvious impact in that game last weekend and upon the team's offense going forward from here on out, you could now even say that the Saints and Payton have "hit the jackpot" with the selection of the young Norcross, Georgia native.

Kamara logged 15 offensive touches for 96 yards and a touchdown in the win over Miami, along with one kickoff return for 23 yards. He picked up 71 yards of those yards on the receiving end of the football; with a total of 10 catches and a 4th quarter TD on a "shovel pass" from QB Drew Brees that sealed the victory for (2-2) New Orleans.

Alex Pantling/Getty Images

He also added 5 carries for 25 total yards, rushing the ball as well.

And it's more than safe to say that now 4 games into the 2017 NFL season, the Saints are getting a pretty solid return so far on their investment.

Early round Draft picks, especially in the first 2 rounds specifically, are considered to be very valuable commodities in NFL circles; and Payton personally was involved in the selection process of Kamara and the eventual trade with San Francisco.

The Saints sent a 2018 second-round pick and this year's seventh-round selection (#229 overall, which the 49ers then used to select University of Miami free safety Adrian Colbert,) for the #67th overall pick and the chance to snag Kamara; who Payton and Saints brass were somewhat shocked to still see available on the draft board by that point in time.

As it was, the Saints had already gotten an up close and personal look at Kamara during Tennessee's Pro Day workout back on March 31st, by none other than Payton himself.

(AP Photo/Wade Payne)

But as NOLA.com / The Times-Picayune beat writer Herbie Teope noted a few months ago, it took a little prompting for Kamara to work out initially --- because the then-draft prospect appeared content to stand by his Combine numbers and originally had planned not to participate at all.

"I said I want to see you do some things here, stuff that we do," Payton said to reporters at the team's final press conference following the last day of the Draft, "and fortunately for him he ran in and put his cleats on and came back out."

Teope says that 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 with him yesterday (that Friday night when the Saints traded up to get him) 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 smiling. "He's real smart and I think he has a lot of versatility."

The biggest reason that Payton became so quickly enamored with Kamara (or developed a "man crush" on him, as FOX Sports analyst Charles Davis referred to it during the televised broadcast from London), was that Kamara reminded Payton heavily of the old 'scat back' role within the Saints offense, a spot formerly held by previous RB's Reggie Bush (2006-2010) and Darren Sproles (2011-2013).

(AP Photo/Ron Schwane)

"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 to reporters back during that post-Draft press conference.

"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."

"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 then. "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."

And so what does Payton think about his prized selection of Kamara, now 6 months later and after the first quarter (4 games) of the 2017 NFL season completed so far?

Photo courtesy of Michael C. Hebert

"Look, he's an explosive player, and you don't know how these touches are going to come," Payton told New Orleans Advocate beat writer Joel A. Erickson after the win over Miami in London. "I mean, the shovel pass was kind of a third-down play inside the 7. We decided to use it there."

Erickson says that Kamara's ability to get up to speed in the Saints offense right away has been impressive. One of the main reasons that the Saints traded up to draft him was because of his physical gifts, but one of his best assets was also his intelligence -- or "high football IQ" as it's better known.

The 'scat back' role (or the "Joker" position, as the Saints now refer to it in 2017) requires a running back to do a variety of different things and be responsible for multiple tasks, and Erickson notes that with the help of Brees and veteran backs Mark Ingram and Adrian Peterson, Kamara has hit the ground running.

"One thing I excel at is catching the ball and being able to do it out of the backfield and create mismatches," Kamara said to Erickson in an one-on-one interview this past Monday.

Photo courtesy of Michael C. Hebert

"Locking in on all the different little intricacies I have, whether it's splitting out on the outside, in the slot, and then still staying into the pass protection and the backfield," Kamara said. "The responsibilities I have, it's a lot, but I've just got to stay focused."

Erickson adds that's what Kamara was brought in to do: to provide the kind of receiving presence that makes the Saints offense difficult to defend on 3rd downs, just like that 3rd and 7 shovel pass play that "iced" the win over the Dolphins.

And now that trade of next year's 2nd Round pick which Payton and the Saints were willing to give away to San Francisco, appears to have been a wise decision thus far.

In 4 games, Kamara has made an immediate impact; to the tune of 83 yards rushing on 15 carries (a 5.5 yard average) and 20 catches for 147 yards (a 7.4 yards per reception average), along with a critically emerging role within the Saints offensive scheme.

Bob Leverone/Associated Press

"Ten catches today on 10 targets," Brees said to reporters in the locker room after the win over the Dolphins. "That's pretty efficient, so we're not going to complain about that, and continue to broaden the scope of what he can do for this offense."

And as far as that gamble that Sean Payton was willing to make back 6 months ago now on Day 2 (Friday Night, April 30th) of the 2017 NFL Draft in Philadelphia?

There's only one way to describe that if you're a betting man (or lady):

JACKPOT...................

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Saints News Network Editor / Featured Columnist Barry Hirstius is a 51-year old semi-retired journalist, former New Orleans-area sports editor, and columnist previously with several sites that exclusively cover the New Orleans Saints football team. Additionally, he is a recurring guest on a variety of local Sports Talk Radio programs. Barry is also a New Orleans native who grew up as a fan of the team while attending games as a young boy at the old Tulane Stadium in the early 1970’s, originally following and now covering the team for a span of over 40 plus years. And perhaps most importantly of all: he is the Grandfather of two beautiful young girls, Jasmine and Serenity.....

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