Christian McCaffrey and Alvin Kamara represent the modern ‘1K-1K’ NFL running back. Which of them is the top dog?


Context

The running back position has changed significantly over the past five years, and no running backs are more representative of this shift than Christian McCaffrey and Alvin Kamara. The old model of running back was the Ricky Williams, LaDanian Tomlinson, Adrian Peterson type. A powerful but elusive, physical three down runner who could be relied upon for 1,500 yards on the ground, and an upside of 500 yards receiving. Ezekiel Elliott and Todd Gurley are the best examples of this type of back in today’s NFL.

CMC and Kamara represent a new breed of back, a playmaker that can easily break 1,000 yards on the ground, and threatens for 1,000 yards from passes. While they have not receiving a massive 400 touch workload like backs of past decades, these backs are climbing in usage as the checkdown craze continues. Last year, McCaffrey was only 143 receiving yards away from joining the exclusive 1K-1K club that counts Marshall Faulk and Roger Craig as its only members. Alvin Kamara has broken 700 yards rushing, 700 yards receiving in each of his first two seasons in the NFL, and takes a bigger share of touches in 2019 with Mark Ingram now in Baltimore. With these two backs redefining the position and aiming for 1K-1K, which of them is the top dog?

Top End Speed

We’ll start with the flash. This is what gets scouts going, and why the racing world loves its Ferraris. The truth is that neither of these running backs is a Chris Johnson 4.2 Ferrari, but this is the multi-dimensional modern NFL running back and not the speed burner that CJ2K was in the late 2000’s

Christian McCaffrey can turn on the jets. Fans who saw his 84 yard touchdown run against the Jaguars on Sunday know that McCaffrey makes running look effortless. Once he reaches the second level on defense, he’s hard to catch. McCaffrey ran a respectable 4.48 time in his NFL combine, and top end speed is not his greatest strength, but he’s still a top ten starting running back on speed alone.

While Kamara can take an edge and sprint to the endzone, his speed is overrated if anything. It’s Kamara’s agility and acceleration that takes him to open space on the field, and he actually does sometimes get caught in space, failing to take the edge the way a few of the league’s faster backs would. CMC is one of those faster backs, and a tally to him for the better top end speed.

Quickness

Christian McCaffrey combines quick cuts with sudden explosions to consistently fit through small holes in the defense. McCaffrey’s burst is extremely hard to defend, which makes him such a threat out of the backfield on the first level. Jukes like this one against Jaguars linebacker Quincy Williams show just how explosive CMC is with the ball. After a back-shoulder throw by Panthers QB Kyle Allen, McCaffrey makes a quick turn, stutter steps, and makes great use of the back joke as he sends Quincy Williams off the screen.

Alvin Kamara thrives on his burst. The man with a bull ring plays more like a matador with defenders running past him, waving his cape around as he escapes oncoming defenders. Kamara’s outrageous first step makes him a threat to score every time he touches the ball, and he often leaves defenders looking silly as they chase him around the field. Kamara’s league leading acceleration has him frequently labeled a ‘playmaker’ or ‘human joystick’ by adjective-hungry commentators, but they’re not wrong as Kamara led the league in forced missed tackles per touch through Week 3 of the season.

Tally to Mr. Missed Tackle, Alvin Kamara.

Strength

Christian McCaffrey did not come into the NFL with much weight on him, and was praised more as an explosive playmaker than as a power runner. In fact, many scouting reports cited his bulk as one of the main flaws in his profile (see ‘lacks desired bulk’), and McCaffrey only put up 10 reps on the bench in the 2017 NFL Combine. However, as fantasy owners salivated, McCaffrey put on some serious bulk in the 2019 offseason after increasing his weight in his first two seasons in the NFL. With his transformation, CMC has gone from a 2017 Combine weight of 202 pounds to his current weight around 210 pounds, and with less body fat.

Kamara is built on a slightly larger frame than McCaffrey, and came into the league at 214 pounds. He has maintained weight in his time in the league, and was certainly a stronger back when he entered the league with McCaffrey, Kamara threw up an impressive fifteen reps on the benchpress in the combine. While Kamara does break tackles with his strength, he is much better at sliding through them than tossing them with stiff arms.

McCaffrey is now at his an ideal weight and looks stronger than ever. Watch as he tosses Bengals running back Hardy Nickerson in 2018, and that’s before his recent weight gain. Tally CMC.

Vision

Christian McCaffrey is known more for his explosion and recent power surge than he is for his vision, which is quite underrated. CMC continues to find success fighting through gaps in opposing defenses, despite the fact that his high usage rate has left him consistently smothered by defenses. McCaffrey has strong pacing and decisiveness when he touches the ball, but is comparatively stronger with his repertoire of moves in the open field than he is in tight spaces.

Often when Alvin Kamara receives a screen pass, he seems to effortlessly slide between defenders, finding holes that are the size of Tarik Cohen. Kamara has been praised for his vision as a runner, and averaged a league-leading 6.1 yards per carry during his 2017 rookie season. But Kamara’s vision is even more impressive when he’s catching passes, averaging a career 9.4 yards per catch — even higher than McCaffrey’s 8.2 yards per catch.

Tally to Kamara for the eagle eyes behind blockers.

Ball Security

While Christian McCaffrey doesn’t have trouble breaking tackles or beating defenders one-on-one, he’s only average at securing the ball. CMC lost four fumbles in 2018 after only losing two in in 2017. While he hasn’t coughed up the ball in 2019 and appears to have improved ball security early in the season, his four fumbles in 2018 were enough for a tie for third among running backs, after turnover-prone Tarik Cohen and Ezekiel Elliott.

Kamara is one of the league’s best ballhandlers at the running back position, having only lost the ball three times in 587 career touches through Week 5, 2019. Kamara’s only fumble in 2018 was on a wild pitch play against Atlanta, and in Week 1 2019 against the Texans on a play where most viewers thought Kamara’s elbow was down. Simply put, ball security is not an issue for Alvin Kamara, and talent evaluators consider him one of the safest bets to keep the rock in a tight game. Tally to the sure-handed Kamara.

Durability

Both of these backs have impeccable track records of staying on the field in the NFL. Christian McCaffrey has not missed a game in the National Football League, and he has only been on the injury report twice in his career, both times with a shoulder injury and neither of which put his game status in question. At Stanford, McCaffrey took a workhorse load, taking 731 offensive touches over 3 seasons. He missed just 1 game in 2016 with a hip injury. At the end of Sunday’s game against the Jaguars, McCaffrey was banged up and it is questionable whether he is able to sustain his insane workload over the long run — now expecting 35 to 40 touches per game.

Alvin Kamara’s most significant injury came during his Junior year at Tennessee, where an LCL and meniscus injury sidelined him for multiple weeks. Kamara does a great job of avoiding hits, akin to the way Le’Veon Bell has done so for years with the Steelers, now Jets. He’s only exited one game during his career in the NFL for a concussion, and never missed a full game. But Kamara has not seen the same workload as McCaffrey and has been slightly less healthy over time. Tally to CMC for a clean bill of health with the league’s heaviest workload.

Hands

Panthers fans who saw this one-handed Christian McCaffrey league’s catch feel pretty sure that their running back has the best hands in the league. To back these claims up with stats, McCaffrey is one of the NFL’s most efficient pass catchers efficiency numbers, with a career 78.7% catch rate on targets his way. CMC achieves this impressive stat with a very high usage rate of approximately 7.5 targets per game, and receives balls from an inaccurate Cam Newton, who only sports a career 60% completion percentage. Those are incredibly impressive figures, as McCaffrey pops off both the stat sheet and the highlight tape as one of the league’s best receiving backs.

We know Alvin Kamara’s teammate Michael Thomas famously has one of the highest catch rates in the league, but Kamara isn’t too shabby himself. Kamara has caught 79.7% of his career passes, off of the accurate Drew Brees and clever play designs of Pete Carmichael. Kamara is known as a great pass catcher and can even be a threat on a deep ball, as he showed on a playoff touchdown that was called back against the Eagles.

While Kamara has good hands, McCaffrey’s are better. Let’s seal this with one more stat: CMC has only one dropped pass since 2018 and 138 receptions during this time, whereas Kamara has three drops and 107 catches during this time. Both impressive, but a tally to McCaffrey.

Consensus

The NFL record for most receiving yards in a season for a running back is held by Marshall Faulk with 1,048 in 1999. Along with Faulk’s 1,381 rushing yards, this is considered one of the best running back seasons of all time. Christian McCaffrey is currently on pace for 892 receiving yards and 1,878 rushing yards. Here’s a prediction: CMC will fall off pace on his rushing totals but pick up the pace in the air as Cam Newton returns, becoming the first running back to ever record 1,000 receiving yards and 1,500 rushing yards in a season. If McCaffrey can just stay healthy, he has a great shot to top Chris Johnson’s 2,509 yard single season all-purpose record, set back in 2009.

While Kamara and his patient, matador-style may be even more beautiful to watch and more representative of the modern dual-threat running back, Christian McCaffrey is the better back and is the poster boy for this 1K-1K movement. CMC takes the win over Kamara.

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