Don't Overpay Adrian Peterson

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistFebruary 22, 2017

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - DECEMBER 18: Adrian Peterson #28 of the Minnesota Vikings runs off the field after warmups prior to an NFL game against the Indianapolis Colts at U.S. Bank Stadium on December 18, 2016 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by Tom Dahlin/Getty Images)
Tom Dahlin/Getty Images

Logic indicates Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson is going to get worse. Any team under the impression that the soon-to-be 32-year-old can make it a contender should consider that, as well as the fact that, with Peterson at his best, the Vikings won just a single playoff game over the course of a decade.

Running backs don't win championships these days. It's been 11 years since a first-team All-Pro back played in a Super Bowl (Shaun Alexander in 2005) and 18 years since one took home the Lombardi Trophy (Terrell Davis in 1998).

Peterson is a lock for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He's put together an anomaly of a career, obstructing Father Time and bouncing back almost better than ever from injuries and trials that would have ended a lesser player's career.

But Father Time is undefeated, and we're still talking about a back with eight relatively full seasons under his belt—a back who has started only 20 of a possible 48 games the last three years.

How much gas could Peterson possibly have left in his tank? It might be more than your typical 32-year-old back simply because he has defied the odds on so many other occasions, and because he avoided wear and tear while on the sideline as a result of a suspension in 2014 and a knee injury in 2016.

But it can't possibly be enough for the Vikings to justify paying $18 million for Peterson's services in 2017.

As ESPN.com's Ben Goessling wrote earlier this month, "It appears to be a virtual certainty that the Vikings would require a restructured contract for Peterson to return to Minnesota." And both parties appear to be aware that, if Peterson doesn't have a new contract in place when the new league year arrives March 10, he'll no longer be a Viking.

Why else would the four-time first-team All-Pro already be subtly flirting with the running back-needy New York Giants on Twitter?

 

Peterson is capable of making the Giants a better team, and he has the ability to upgrade at least a dozen other offenses.

The Denver Broncos, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Detroit Lions, Seattle Seahawks, Green Bay Packers, Baltimore Ravens and Carolina Panthers. All are good teams and all would benefit from the addition of Adrian Peterson.

Still, running backs have lost so much value in the most pass-happy era in NFL history that it's foolish to overpay them. Peterson was an exception to that rule in his prime, but the truth is he hasn't been consistently dominant since putting together that unforgettable 2,097-yard season post-knee surgery in 2012.

We have plenty of evidence that backs shouldn't be paid for what they've done. Instead, they should be paid for what they have a chance to do. Even if Peterson is able to stay on the field in 2017, his career trajectory indicates he'll no longer be a superstar.

After putting together that unreal 2012 campaign, Peterson's 2013 yardage total was cut nearly in half—from 2,097 to 1,266. He averaged a silly 6.0 yards per attempt in 2012, but that number dropped to 4.5 the next year, ranking 13th among 48 qualified backs.

He missed virtually the entire 2014 season while on the commissioner’s exempt list after being indicted on child-abuse charges before bouncing back with a 2015 campaign that was similar to his 2013 season. Yes, he managed to lead the league in rushing that year, but he again averaged a good-not-great 4.5 yards per rush, and his yards-per-game total rose only 2.4 yards from his 2013 mark of 90.4.

Peterson won the rushing title in 2015 because he was a workhorse, but he actually faded quite a bit down the stretch as a 30-year-old.

Adrian Peterson in 2015
CategoryFirst 11 gamesFinal 6 games*
Scrimmage yards/game122.569.7
Yards/attempt4.93.2
Touchdowns83
* Including playoffs

And his body failed him early the next year when he suffered a torn meniscus in his right knee in September.

In Peterson's last nine NFL starts, he's averaging only 2.9 yards per carry. He failed to reach the 70-yard mark on the ground in eight of those nine games and hasn't scored a touchdown in his last four outings.

On top of all that, precedents also support the idea that Peterson will never be the player he once was.

  • Only two running backs in modern NFL history have gone over 1,000 yards while averaging 4.5-plus yards per carry at or beyond the age of 32. One of those backs was Ricky Williams, who spent only five seasons as a regular starter prior to that age-32 campaign and had 495 fewer career carries than Peterson does now. The other was James Brooks, who had also only served five seasons as a regular starting back and had barely half as many career carries as Peterson.
  • The only back in history to rush for 1,000 yards while averaging 4.5-plus yards per carry beyond his 10th NFL season is Walter Payton, who accomplished that feat in 1985. But Sweetness was one year younger than Peterson is now. At age 31, 32 and 33, Payton's numbers sunk gradually but consistently. That's the standard.
Hall of Fame RBs who were active in the last 25 years
PlayerFinal Pro Bowl seasonAgeHad been a starter for
Terrell Davis1998263 years
Thurman Thomas1993275 years
LaDainian Tomlinson2007286 years
Eric Dickerson1989296 years
Marshall Faulk2002298 years
Barry Sanders1998309 years
Emmitt Smith1999309 years
Curtis Martin2004319 years
Jerome Bettis20043211 years
Marcus Allen1993337 years
Average307 years
Pro Football Reference

No other running back in football is projected to have a cap hit that is even half as high as Peterson's $18 million total for the 2017 season. The league's top two rushers in 2016—Ezekiel Elliott of the Dallas Cowboys and Jordan Howard of the Chicago Bears—were rookies. Five of the top seven were on rookie contracts. The other two—DeMarco Murray of the Tennessee Titans and LeSean McCoy of the Buffalo Bills—are former rushing champs, but both still made less than $8 million apiece.

Peterson is no longer worth $14 million a year. Realistically, he might not be worth half of that.

"It only takes one team to do something stupid," an NFL contract negotiator told Jason La Canfora of CBSSports.com, "but I can't see there being much out there for him once the Vikings let him go."

Peterson's case is an odd one because he's shocked us so many times before. And while he probably can't become a bell cow again, he might not be willing to accept a smaller role on a short-term, incentive-laden contract. Does he even want to go through the grind as a 32-year-old with a much lower salary in a peripheral role?

It might be that or retirement for Peterson, because the 2017 NFL draft looks to be loaded with high-quality running backs who have more upside and will cost even less. Teams saw what Elliott and Howard did in 2016, what Alfred Morris and Doug Martin did in 2012, what Eddie Lacy and Jeremy Hill did in 2013 and 2014, respectively, and what Todd Gurley did in 2015.

You don't need a bell cow anymore. But if you want to land one anyway, the draft is the place to look.

Those dynamics should cause a lot of teams to pass on Adrian Peterson until the price is right.

     

Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012.