Adrian Peterson has now hit the open market. This information sent shivers of excitement through fan bases everywhere. One of the best running backs of a generation is available to anyone willing to pay the price. The Vikings were facing a rather large cost for Peterson if they wanted to keep him under his contract. If the Vikings had kept AP under his previous deal, they would have counted $18 million against the cap for 2017. Quarterback money to the only Running Back named MVP in the last decade. Still, all this is a fantasy. Adrian Peterson is just a name. How much does one pay for a name?
While Minnesota fans are mixed on the news. Many are angry that the team could let one of their greatest players just walk after all this time. Several have seen that the team suffered this year and point to the lack of playoff success in the Peterson era. Ten seasons of Adrian Peterson have produced just four playoff appearances, five playoff games, and a 1-4 playoff record. While Minnesotans might be mixed on this, fans across America clamor for the idea that adding the great Adrian Peterson is the last piece of their playoff puzzle. Writers across the country are opining about what the Packers or Patriots or even the Cowboys would look like with AP. All of them are writing about an Adrian Peterson who exists in their memories.
Adrian Peterson is spent. Say it together now. Let it sink in. Here are some important numbers. 2,418: the numbers of carries in Peterson’s career. 2,659: the number of total touches in his career. 2012: the last year where he was above his career average in yards per carry and yards per game. He was selected to the Pro bowl in each of his first four seasons, and then just three times in the following six (injury and suspension obviously a factor).
The Rushing Leader
Here is the main reason no one is paying attention to this fact: the 2015 season. You know the argument. Just one season ago Peterson was the league’s leading rusher. He can do it again. There are many secondary factors that went into that season.
First, Peterson was coming off a suspended season. Peterson played a single game in 2014. The game was a blowout win against the Rams (who finished 2014 at 6-10). In that game, Peterson had 21 carries for 75 yards (a 3.57 average) and no touchdown. A fairly pedestrian game against 2014’s 14th ranked rushing defense (110.3 yards per game, 4.2 yards per carry). Then came the storm of Peterson’s suspension for hitting his son with a switch. Peterson sat out a season without injury. It is crucial to remember that he was healthy and did not spend a minute rehabbing. He spent an entire season just preparing for 2015.
Peterson started the 2015 season with a bang. He may have looked rusty in the very first game (10 rushes for 31 yards against the 49ers), but he had five 100+ yard games in the first nine games of 2015. Week nine culminated this spectacular stretch when he put up 203 yards on 26 carries against the Raiders. Over the first nine games Peterson had 195 rushes for 961 yards (4.93 yards per carry). This is very impressive, even considering the schedule only included three games against teams in the top half of the league in rushing yards allowed per game. Four of Peterson’s five 100+ yards games came against rushing defenses ranked 19th or lower.
While Peterson rode this nine game stretch to a league rushing title, there are other factors to remember. How is it that AP was able to come back and so thoroughly dominate the running backs who led the way in 2014? The easy answer is he simply won a war of attrition. Here are some of the biggest names who led the way in 2014 and what happened to them in 2015. DeMarco Murray led the league in rushing in 2014, then was signed by the Eagles and only made eight starts. Le’Veon Bell was second in rushing in 2014, but then faced and early suspension and ended the season on the IR with a torn MCL. LeSean McCoy was the third rusher in 2014, but was sent off to Buffalo where he suffered a hamstring injury that cost him four games. Marshawn Lynch had 1,319 yards in 2014 and then was injured and only started six games in 2015. Justin Forsett broken arm, Arian Foster torn Achilles, Jamaal Charles torn ACL. By the end of the year, AP just had to beat out the likes of Doug Martin, Todd Gurley, Darren McFadden and Chris Ivory.
A trend is when something stops being a fluke and becomes the new normal. 2013 was a good year, seeing Peterson run for 1,266 yards and averaging 4.54 yards per carry. 2014 started with a whimper and was lost to the suspension. 2015 was a nine game stretch that skewed the reality.
Remember, 961 yards in nine games. Sadly, that total alone would have been better than the 907 yards that made DeAngelo Williams the tenth leading rusher in the league that year. In the remaining seven games Peterson dropped off hard. To give a full picture, here are the numbers for all ten games Peterson played after this big start to 2015. In the last ten games, Peterson had 596 yards on 169 carries, six touchdowns, 14 catches on 20 targets and 92 yards receiving. That is good for 59.6 yards per game and 3.53 yards per carry. That looks an awful lot like what Jerick McKinnon was able to do last year. Peterson had two games of 100+ yards, but failed to cross 70 in any of the other eight games.
A ten game stretch, nine in a row without injury or disruption, is a trend. The fluke was Peterson having a full year to prepare for the start of the 2015 season. This allowed him to come out far more rested than anyone else he was facing. Peterson will be 32 years old when the season starts. The NFL average for a running back’s career is well under five years and Peterson has been relevant for a decade. Declaring that this era of production will last forever is a dream.
Remember, Peterson may not have played many games last year, but he is not resting. Peterson has been in a full rehab. He pushed himself to get back early for the end of last year and it backfired. Peterson is spending his offseason just getting back to normal.
Harsh New Reality
What is Peterson worth in this market? Well, the comparables are Not Le’Veon Bell or Ezekiel Elliott. The comparables are Frank Gore, Rashad Jennings and Matt Forte. Guys who averaged between 3.3 and 3.9 yards per carry and have some receiving abilities. Guys with a lot of tread on the tires and looking at third contracts or later. If you extrapolate the last ten games into a full season, he would have had 270 carries for 954 yards. That is very similar to Gore’s 268 carries for 1,073 yards last year behind a similarly bad offensive line. Matt Forte managed 813 yards on 218 carries (a 3.7 average).
Frank Gore is entering the final year of a three-year $12 million contract. He will count $3.5 million against the Colts cap this year. Matt Forte is entering the second year of his three-year $12 million contract and will count $5 million against the Jets cap this year. Rashad Jennings was just released by the Giants before the final year of a four-year $10 million deal. Granted, Jennings has a far smaller historical cache in the NFL so Gore and Forte are the better comparisons.
Considering the market on these two players of similar age and high-end production, it seems that the market value should be in the $4 million to $5 million a year range. Considering contenders like New England, Atlanta, Dallas and Green Bay have younger Running Backs currently on their rosters that they like, he is likely to see $4 million offers from these teams on a possible two-year deal maybe with a team option third year. Still, most of these teams got to where they are by not throwing money at aging players. If Peterson wants to chase a championship he is going to have to swallow his pride a lot and take less money. The question will be whether or not Peterson recognizes the reality that he is no longer elite.