Can Adrian Peterson Thrive as a Receiver in the Vikings' New Offense?

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Can Adrian Peterson Thrive as a Receiver in the Vikings' New Offense?
USA Today

The 2014 season should provide the best look yet at the abilities of Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson as a receiver out of the backfield. 

For a variety of reasons, Peterson has rarely been a major factor as a receiver during his seven-year NFL career. He caught a career-high 43 passes for 436 yards with Brett Favre as his quarterback in 2009, but his other six seasons include just one other year with 40 catches (2012) or 300 receiving yards (2010).

Overall, Peterson has averaged just 29 receptions for 242 yards per season since 2007. 

Last season, Peterson caught exactly 29 passes for just 171 yards, good for an average of only 5.9 yards per reception. Thirty-four running backs caught more passes in 2013. And of the 199 total players in the NFL that caught at least 20 passes last season, Peterson's 5.9-yard average ranked 192nd.

Playing in offenses generally avoidant of throwing the ball to running backs, and lacking the trust in pass protection needed to stay on the field for obvious passing downs, Peterson simply hasn't gained a foothold in an area of the game more and more running backs are taking full advantage of. 

That will likely all change in 2014. 

New offensive coordinator Norv Turner is bringing to Minnesota his somewhat unique offense. Built on the running game and vertical passing game, Turner's offense also relies heavily on getting the football to running backs through the air. 

Since 1991, 17 of Turner's offenses (affiliated through being the offensive coordinator or head coach) have featured a running back with at least 44 receptions. Peterson could easily become No. 18. 

Notable RB Receiving Seasons under Norv Turner
RB Year Receptions Receiving Yards
E. Smith 1992 59 335
E. Smith 1993 57 414
R. Ervins 1994 51 293
B. Mitchell 1997 36 438
L. Centers 2000 81 600
L. Tomlinson 2001 59 367
R. Williams 2002 47 363
R. Williams 2003 50 361
L. Jordan 2005 70 563
F. Gore 2006 61 485
L. Tomlinson 2008 52 426
D. Sproles 2009 45 497
D. Sproles 2010 59 520
R. Mathews 2011 50 455
R. Brown 2012 49 371
C. Ogbonnaya 2013 48 343

Source: pro-football-reference.com

"He’s run the ball in closed-in quarters with a lot of defenders there and he makes a lot of long runs, making people miss or running over people," Turner said back February, via Ben Goessling of ESPN.com. "It’s hard to do, but we would like to get him in space and getting the field spread a little bit better for him." 

It's only July, but Peterson has embraced the change of roles. 

"It's all about winning," Peterson said, via Brian Murphy of the St. Paul Pioneer Press. "I'm trying to win a championship. If that's taking less of a pounding, and being more productive in the passing game, I'm all in for it. Any way we can get that done, I'm all in for it."

Peterson has certainly taken a pounding, especially in recent years. Less than a year after reconstructive knee surgery, Peterson received almost 400 total touches for the Vikings in 2012. Last season, he averaged 22 touches per game. And an unusually high percentage of his rushing attempts have come against eight-man defensive fronts. 

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Peterson will still be a between-the-tackles runner in 2014, as few in NFL history have been better at winning in the tight spaces of inside running. Yet the Vikings also want to preserve his body as long as possible. Reducing the number of times he's asked to pound away inside is one way to accomplish the goal. 

In theory, Peterson should be a devastating receiver in the open field. He's annually among the top players in football in forced missed tackles and yards after contact. Asking more cornerbacks and safeties to tackle him in space sounds like a no-brainer. 

But just how effective has Peterson been as a receiver in his career? The stats and tape provide a glimpse at what Turner and the Vikings offense will be working with next season. 

For starters, Peterson hasn't been a reliable back in terms of actually catching the football. 

According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Peterson has dropped 30 passes since 2007, or roughly 11 percent of his 271 career targets (including playoffs). He dropped three of his 37 targets in 2012. For comparison's sake, consider Ray Rice dropped three on 70 targets. Peterson has some polishing up to do if he's to see a huge increase in targets next season. 

Here's one example of Peterson simply losing concentration on a screen pass:

NFL Game Rewind

Another somewhat mystifying trend is Peterson's inability to break big gains in the passing game. Last season, he had just one reception of over 20 yards. He forced nine missed tackles on receptions, but the work rarely resulted in huge chunks of yards. In fact, Peterson had just two games with a yards-per-reception average of more than 10. 

This isn't a new trend. During his historic season of 2012, Peterson still had only one reception of over 20 yards, and just two games with an average reception over 10. He caught 80.4 percent of his targets (a strong number) but still managed only 5.5 yards per reception.

Scheme and quarterback likely played a big role. Peterson was rarely on the field for third-and-long situations, when some running backs can chew up garbage yards underneath. His limited receiving work came on early downs and usually the receptions were nothing more than short dumpoffs from rattled quarterbacks. 

Peterson's numbers from 2009, when Favre captained Darrell Bevell's offense, tell a different story. 

He averaged 10.2 yards over his 46 receptions, both of which remain career highs. He had five receptions over 20 yards, two over 40, and he averaged almost 11 yards after the catch. Peterson might have dropped seven passes, but the throws he did catch netted big gains. 

Below is a clip from the 2009 season:

NFL Game Rewind

Peterson is one-on-one with a Bengals linebacker, and he makes the most of the opportunity. It helps that Favre provides a perfect ball for Peterson to run after the catch (go back and watch some of the throws he was dealing with last season). From there, Peterson turns the corner like only he can and picks up 28 yards on a 2nd-and-20 play. 

The Vikings will hope Turner's offense can provide the same kind of space for Peterson next season. 

The reintroduction of the screen pass in Minnesota might also help Peterson. 

According to Steve Palazzolo of PFF, Vikings quarterbacks (Christian Ponder and Matt Cassel) totaled 300 yards on screen plays last season. Amazingly, only nine of Ponder's screen yards went to running backs. Cassel was even worse, netting minus three yards to backs. So overall, Minnesota gained exactly six yards on running back screens in 2013.

It's hard to find a logical reason why any offense would so obviously avoid the running back screen play, especially when the idea of Peterson running behind a wall of blockers sounds so appealing. With Turner, the play should make a comeback. 

Expect Peterson to approach 40 receptions next season, with an increase in average yards per reception. He may not be the most polished receiver among NFL running backs and drops will likely always be an issue. But the Turner offense promises to give Peterson more favorable opportunities in the passing game, while also reducing his wear-and-tear from the clogged spaces of the field. 

That's a win-win proposition for Peterson and the Vikings.

 

Zach Kruse covers the NFC North for Bleacher Report. 

Follow @zachkruse2

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