METAIRIE, La. — By now, the rest of the NFL should have caught on to the fact that New Orleans Saints running back Alvin Kamara is among the top-performing rookies in the NFL.

Perhaps it only looks like Kamara is still catching defenses by surprise with his versatility and his shifty, slippery running style.

“From the way that it seems and the production that he has, it doesn’t look like (defenses) have been preparing for him,” said veteran Carolina linebacker Thomas Davis, who’ll be trying to slow down Kamara this Sunday in the Superdome. “The guy’s been going out and making plays all over the field, man.”

The 5-foot-10, 215-pound Kamara leads all rookies with nine touchdowns — including a 74-yard scoring run against the Rams in Los Angeles last Sunday. He ranks third among all rookies in both yards rushing with 546 and receiving with 548. His 1,094 yards from scrimmage ranks second among rookies. His 7.1 yards per carry leads the entire NFL.

He’s also approaching George Rogers’ Saints rookie record of 13 touchdowns in 1981.

Kamara’s performance has made him among the best value picks of last spring’s NFL draft, having been taken in the third round.

He never emerged as a big-name college player after transferring from Alabama to Tennessee, where he often backed up Jalen Hurd. Still, his college statistics indicate he was effective when he got the ball. He averaged 6.2 yards per carry and 9.2 yards per reception during two seasons with the Volunteers. He fell just short of 1,000 yards from scrimmage in each season.

The Saints liked Kamara’s versatility and hoped he might fit their offense in much the way Darren Sproles and Reggie Bush did.

But even New Orleans waited until the 67th overall pick to trade up and snag him.

“If you re-drafted today, I’m sure his selection and round would be entirely different,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “He’s been able to adjust and adapt quickly to the speed of the game at this level.

“A year ago on film, you didn’t get to see as many carries because he was splitting time,” Payton added. “But certainly you saw his ball skills and we’re fortunate to have him.”

What seems to set Kamara apart is his ability to avoid or shed tacklers with subtle weight transfers or changes in speed. There aren’t many jaw-dropping jukes.

“It’s not a full head of steam all the time. It’s like, calculated,” Kamara said. “It’s a lot of down-shifting and up-shifting. … I wasn’t really a big juker.”

Right guard Larry Warford said Kamara’s teammates have caught themselves letting up on plays, figuring Kamara is certain to be tackled, only to realize he’s still running.

“When you see him in a situation and it looks like there’s no way he’s getting out of that, he gets out of it,” Warford said. “It’s weird.”

The Panthers’ Davis, a former Georgia player, sounded among the least surprised by Kamara’s success.

“I’ve been a real fan of Alvin since he was at Tennessee, watching a lot of SEC football and really seeing how dynamic that guy was,” Davis said “It’s definitely translated over into the NFL.”

Carolina coach Ron Rivera said Payton’s offense has a lot to do with Kamara’s success. After all, it’s hard to bird-dog Kamara at the expense of accounting for so many other ways quarterback Drew Brees could distribute the ball. He could be throwing over the middle to receiver Michael Thomas or tight end Coby Fleener, or deep to Ted Ginn. Sometimes Kamara and Ingram are on the field together, and both running backs are effective as rushers or receivers in the screen game.

“Coach (Payton) uses his personnel very well and Drew Brees happily distributes the ball,” Rivera said. “If you sit there and think he’s going to give the ball to Kamara 40 times, he isn’t. He’s going to spread the ball around.”

When the Saints’ eight-game winning streak ended against the Rams, New Orleans might have done well to consider giving Kamara the ball 40 times — or at least more than the five carries and six catches he had. With his 101 yards receiving — including a catch-and-run during which he hurdled Rams cornerback Kayvon Webster — and his 87 yards rushing, he accounted for more than half of New Orleans’ 346 total yards.

A week earlier, Kamara shined in an unlikely comeback victory against Washington, scoring the tying touchdown on a pass over the middle that he initially bobbled, and then corralled, between three converging defenders. He also took a pitch in for a 2-point conversion needed to tie the game.

If the Saints return to the playoffs for the first time since 2013, he’ll be a big reason why.

Notes: The Saints’ top two cornerbacks — Marshon Lattimore (ankle) and Ken Crawley (groin) — both practiced on a limited basis. … Safety Marcus Williams (groin) sat out, as did left tackle Terron Armstead (thigh, shoulder) and tight end Coby Fleener (concussion symptoms).


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