Seven-time Pro Bowl running back Adrian Peterson has been in for a rude awakening ever since the Vikings declined to pick up his option for the 2017 season, making him a free agent. Peterson’s option year was for $18 million, which included a $6 million roster bonus scheduled to become due on March 11.
Free agency can be a humbling process. This is particularly true for superstar players on the decline that don’t generate much interest during the first wave of free agency, which is typically the first 48 to 72 hours of the signing period.
Peterson took to Twitter over the weekend to dispute an ESPN report that he is asking for more than $8 million in the first year of a contract. The 2012 NFL MVP suggested money isn’t the most important consideration. In part, Peterson said, “Finding the best fit & helping a team in a major way to a championship is my main objective! I’m in no rush.”
It’s easy for Peterson to say he isn’t in a rush because he probably doesn’t have much of a choice about being patient. There is usually very little free-agent activity during the NFL’s annual meeting, which began Sunday in Phoenix. Teams will devote most of their attention to the upcoming NFL Draft, which will be held April 27-29, after the meeting wraps up Wednesday. There are typically some signings of free agents still on the open market in the days leading up to the draft.
My 15 years of experience in player representation suggests that Peterson was initially pricing himself out of the market. It would be a huge step from Peterson’s perspective to target a deal from the outset where he was taking a 50 percent pay cut in 2017 from his scheduled $18 million, especially after setting the running back market for the past several years on a contract averaging more than $14 million per year.
It’s easy for Peterson to say he isn’t in rush because he probably doesn’t have much of a choice about being patient.
The most lucrative running back contracts in free agency last offseason had less than $9 million in the first year. Lamar Miller, Doug Martin and Chris Ivory had first-year compensation of $8.5 million, $8 million and $7.5 million in long-term deals averaging $6.5 million, $7.15 million and $6.4 million per year.
Free agency is a fluid process where players must adapt to changing market conditions. Peterson might be having a difficult time accepting the financial climate with running backs. Eddie Lacy and Latavius Murray, both entering free agency after completing rookie contracts, helped define the market for ball carriers. Murray is essentially replacing Peterson in Minnesota. His three-year deal has a base value of $15 million where $3.6 million is fully guaranteed at signing and $4.25 million is in the first year. Lacy took a one-year deal from the Seahawks for $4.25 million that can be worth as much as $5.55 million through incentives.
Peterson’s free agency always had the potential to be challenging. It’s a deep running back draft class where fresh legs can be found cheaper. Any running back selected outside of the top seven picks in the draft will sign a four-year deal averaging less than Murray’s.
More important, Peterson is an older, high-mileage running back coming off an injury-plagued season where he was ineffective. He was off to an extremely slow start before missing 11 games because of a torn meniscus in his right knee. Peterson’s quicker-than-expected return with three games left for Minnesota’s push for a playoff berth lasted one game before being sidelined again because of a groin injury. He rushed for 72 yards on 37 carries in three games last season.
Peterson just turned 32. His 2,418 rushing attempts are 26th all-time. Although Peterson led the NFL in rushing in 2015 with 1,485 yards, it is unusual for running backs to maintain or improve their production in their 30s. Only 10 running backs 32 or older have ever rushed for over 1,000 yards in a season. Peterson can point to Frank Gore gaining 1,025 yards at 33 last season as evidence that he can still be productive.
Complicating matters is Peterson’s reported top destination, the Raiders, appear to have their sights set on another older running back. Marshawn Lynch, who turns 31 next month. out of retirement even though the Seahawks still hold his NFL rights.
As much as Peterson might not like it, the free-agent deals in recent years for older, high-mileage running backs have always been most indicative of his next contract. Steven Jackson, close to turning 30, received a three-year, $12 million contract (worth up to $13.5 million through salary escalators) from the Falcons in 2013 after eight straight seasons of at least 1,000 rushing yards with the Rams. $5.25 million was in the first year of contract. Jackson had 2,396 career carries when he signed with the Falcons.
Gore took a three-year, $12 million deal from the Colts containing $7.5 million fully guaranteed in 2015 after his 10-year run with the 49ers came to an end. He had 2,442 rushing attempts as a member of the 49ers.
Matt Forte signed a three-year, $12 million contract (worth as much as $16 million from salary escalators and incentives) with the Jets last offseason. $9.5 million was fully guaranteed at signing with Forte making $5 million in the first year. He also had over 2,000 career carries and was 30 years old at signing.
Accounting for the increase of the salary cap from $123 million when Jackson signed to its current $167 million figure doesn’t materially change Peterson’s fortunes. This puts Peterson in the $5.5 million-per-year neighborhood.
A team that doesn’t adequately address running back needs in the draft might begin to show serious interest in Peterson later in the spring. However, older veterans that don’t sign before the draft are known to be patient about finding a new football destination, especially when the money is below their expectations. These signings might not take place until right before training camps open. Some seasoned veterans will wait for a preseason injury at their position before signing a contract.
It remains to be seen whether Peterson takes this approach. Regardless, he must come to grips with the reality of the older, high-mileage running back market. A key running back injury probably isn’t going to change things much financially.