'You don't just replace Alvin Kamara': How the Saints can get a boost with RB back

METAIRIE, La. -- New Orleans Saints running back Alvin Kamara found out what it was like to be a fan this month, and he didn’t like it.

Kamara returned to practice this week after serving a three-game suspension for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy. Kamara’s suspension began in August, and during that time period, he worked out with his trainers in Miami, watched Saints games on TV and found himself constantly texting his teammates during their 2-1 start.

“I don’t really watch a lot of football, but when I’m not playing, I gotta watch my team obviously,” Kamara said. “I’m almost like, torn, because I’m like, ‘Man, I don’t want to watch.’ Then it’s like, ‘I got to. It’s my team.’ So it was definitely weird. Especially last week. It was cool the first two weeks, I was like, ‘Win, win!’ And then we dropped one. But we just gotta get back on track. I’m just happy I’m back.”

Kamara found himself texting quarterback Derek Carr, or wide receiver Michael Thomas, or anyone who would listen regarding his thoughts from the TV broadcast. His amused teammates shot down his backseat driving.

“It’s funny to sit back and watch -- obviously not being able to affect the game -- but watching and seeing like what could be,” Kamara said. “You know, it’s easy to sit back and be like, ‘We should’ve done this or we should’ve done that.’ So I felt myself doing that. I felt like a fan a little bit. … I’m telling Derek, and he’s like, ‘Nah.’ I’m like, ‘Oh, all right.’ And I was talking to Cesar [Ruiz], and he was like, ‘Nah, it’s not that easy.’ And I’m like, ‘Well, still.’ So I had to come back to the reality of a player.”

Kamara fully participated in Wednesday’s practice session as the Saints prepare for Sunday's Week 4 matchup (1 p.m. ET, FOX) with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

“He looked good,” coach Dennis Allen said. “He’s in shape, looked explosive today. It was good to have him back out there. Excited to have him.”

His return couldn’t come at a better time for a banged-up running back room. Rookie Kendre Miller made his debut last week (where he led the team with 34 yards on nine carries) after missing two games with a hamstring injury, and Jamaal Williams went on injured reserve last week with a hamstring injury. The Saints are also 21st in rushing yards per game (93.3).

The Buccaneers have held Kamara to 68 total all-purpose yards in their last two meetings. The matchup has gotten heated at times, particularly between Buccaneers wide receiver Mike Evans and Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore.

“Me and [Thomas] have been talking and however it goes, it’s going to go. ... You know Marshon will be ready,” Kamara said with a smile.

Kamara’s coaches and teammates have long been ready to get him back to their side of things, for reasons beyond stopping his well-meaning texts.

One week ago, offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael simply laughed when asked if he was ready for Kamara’s return.

“I’m looking forward to it,” Carmichael said. “Believe me.”

Kamara brings a unique ability to the Saints’ passing game that they haven’t been able to replicate with their other running backs. He has always been used heavily in the passing game and has only two games in his career without a catch. The Saints running backs have only one effective quarter this year in that area, when Tony Jones Jr. caught four passes for 21 yards in the first quarter in Sunday's 18-17 loss at the Green Bay Packers.

The running back room has a combined 28 yards receiving this season.

“Any time somebody is out, you don't just replace Alvin Kamara,” Carr said. “Obviously guys come in and fill the role, but they're going to be themselves. Alvin is himself. He does things that other people can't and vice versa. Right? And so getting AK back is a big deal.”

While he won’t be the instant solution to the list of problems the Saints are dealing with, especially with the offensive line struggling, he will present a new facet to the offense that has been missing this season.

“There’s some things I do that open up our offense a little more -- for everybody, not just for me,” Kamara said. “For Mike, for Chris [Olave], Rashid [Shaheed]. So I’m excited to get back out there and kind of get some of those opportunities.”

Kamara has excelled at catching passes throughout his career. The Saints have targeted their running backs only nine times this season, connecting seven times, which is a stark contrast from Kamara's 490 receiving yards and 57 catches on 77 targets in 15 games.

Five of those targets came in the first half Sunday before Carr exited early in the second half with a shoulder injury.

Even though Kamara's receptions have dropped off in the last two seasons since Drew Brees retired, he still had 14 targets in his first three games of the 2021 season and 11 last year.

Kamara said during training camp that there were multiple discussions about getting him more involved in the passing game this season. He had only 104 catches in the past two years after four straight years of at least 80 receptions.

He hopes that part of his game can help an offense that hasn’t gotten out to the start the team expected (statistically).

“I definitely think I have something to offer, but like I said, people watching are like, ‘Coaches need to call certain plays,’” Kamara said. "I watched the game as a player, and I was trying to watch as a fan. That didn’t work too well.

"Up front, we’ve got to handle the business. Those guys take responsibility, they know what they gotta do run-game wise, protecting DC, protecting our quarterbacks-wise. There’s a couple things we’ve got to get on track, but I’m definitely excited to get out there and do what I’ve been good at doing the past couple years.”

As Kamara looks ahead to the start of his season, he sees the next 14 games as an opportunity. Kamara has not had a season without injury since 2020, and he’s hoping to take advantage of the additional rest.

“I feel like college again. I’m fresh. I’m real fresh,” Kamara said. “[Tight ends coach] Clancy [Barone] asked me if I was bored. And I was like, ‘I wouldn’t say I was bored,’ but I was definitely thinking, 'well, that’s three less games where I’m taxed and kind of taking that load and taking those hits.'”

One thing has been clear through his time out and all of the texts, his want for improvement amongst the offense.

“It’s frustrating, [if I'm] out there or not. Because with the weapons we have, you feel like you know the potential we got,” Kamara said. “But sometimes when you see it not come to fruition, it’s annoying. But it’s a lot of things -- it’s player error. Everybody wants to blame coaching, but some things we’ve gotta execute better. … But it’ll be good, we’ll be all right, get on track.”