No amount of tweeting or social media flirting is going to change Adrian Peterson’s reality. There comes a time in the career of every player -- even those once as great as Peterson -- where he discovers that he’s no longer in a position to call his shots and dictate contract terms and exert leverage over where he plays and how often he plays.
Especially when you are a 31-year old who happens to play the largely disposable position of running back, who is coming off another lost season (this one to injury), and spent another season getting paid not to play on the commissioner’s exempt list after being indicted on child-abuse charges. Especially when the team that drafted you and has paid you at the top of your position for the entirety of your career is no longer welcoming you back and has gotten a little worn out by your act the past few years. Especially when, before your latest knee injury, you were averaging 2.9 yards per carry over the previous eight games when you were healthy. And especially when your skill set is limited to two downs (maybe even one down depending on how pass-happy a team is) with others far more preferable in the screen game and in passing scenarios.
The days of making $14 million a year, which Peterson attained in his last contract, are long gone.
And no amount of wink-winking at the Giants or the Cowboys or any other preferred destination is going to change the fact that Peterson is staring at bleak odds in terms of mandating anything once the Vikings go ahead and release him. All that he accomplished in Minnesota on the field is legendary, and his super-human return in 2012 from an ACL tear will long be celebrated there, but now he’s going to have to prove to 31 other teams that he isn’t damaged goods, that he isn’t hitting the wall that tends to crush older running backs, and that he won’t be a distraction off the field as well.
I don’t expect there to be a robust market for Peterson. I don’t expect there to be any significant guaranteed money. And I don’t expect his attempts to play footsy on social media while still under contract to the Vikings at the highest rate ever for a running back to do a damn thing to change that.
Teams want to go young and cheap by and large at running back. There would be natural questions about Peterson’s willingness to be a backup on a good team (getting maybe 5-10 touches a game) and questions about his durability if he had to be a bell cow on a bad team. Several GMs I’ve talked to who have watched his film expressed real concerns about where he is at this stage in his career, and wondered if he would really be willing to play on a one-year, $5 million deal with incentives if that’s what the market bears.
“It only takes one team to do something stupid,” one NFL contract negotiator said, “but I can’t see there being much out there for him once the Vikings let him go.”
The Giants, who badly need to rebuild their offensive line, would do far better pouring resources into that position and drafting another back to complement rookie Paul Perkins, who came on strong in the second half of last season. Peterson might find a willing suitor (foil?) in Jerry Jones, who never met a marketing opportunity he didn’t fall in love with, though I would have some concerns about how Peterson and star rookie back Ezekiel Elliott would mesh. Could the Patriots make a value play for Peterson (LeGarrette Blount is a free agent)? It fits their model, but I’m not sure the tape would spur Bill Belichick to make that move, as much as he loves to get veterans on the cheap late in their careers.
Here is what Peterson did in his eight starts before suffering a meniscus injury early in the 2016 season:
That’s in essence a half-season of work, and Peterson rushed 144 times for just 416 yards, a paltry 2.9 yards per carry. The league average in most years is 4 yards and Peterson’s lifetime average is a staggering 4.9. He reached 70 yards just once in that span with three total rushing touchdowns.
He has done this, of course, while on a dinosaur outlier of a contract, far outpacing the earnings of any other running back in the game. Peterson was making $14 million a year; no one else is earning $10 million a year at his position. Last year his cap figure was $12 million -- the next highest running back was Jamaal Charles at $9 million. The average salary for an NFL running back in 2016 was $1.6 million.
Over the past three years, Peterson has appeared in just 20 of a possible 48 games, carrying a total of 385 times for 1,632 yards (4.2 per carry) with 11 touchdowns. He has done that while bringing home a staggering $35 million (including 2014, when he played in just one game -- but was paid fully -- after photos emerged of the physical abuse he perpetrated on his then 4-year-old son).
Fortunes can change quickly for running backs. Ask Shaun Alexander or Clinton Portis or Larry Johnson or any number of other top runners from the past decade or so. And, yes, Peterson has been of a different class for almost all of his NFL career, but this is a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately league and he happens to perform at the most what-have-you-done-for-me-lately position of all.
Stirring up fans in a lather on Twitter with dreams of A.P. in their favorite uniform, or passive-aggressively trying to conjure up a market and spur a front office to action isn’t going to do him any favors in the end. And I suspect by the combine he’ll be confronted with a reality much closer to, say, the three-year, $12 million deal Frank Gore signed with the Colts a few years back than anything approaching the $12 million a year he has become accustomed to.