Adrian Peterson no longer looks like a bell-cow running back

The Vikings declined the veteran's option Tuesday, making him a free agent. Senior Analyst Sam Monson looks at the 31-year-old's future prospects.

| 3 months ago
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(Adam Bettcher/Getty Images)

Adrian Peterson no longer looks like a bell-cow running back

The Minnesota Vikings elected not to pick up Adrian Peterson’s contract option — that would have paid a soon-to-be 32-year-old running back $18 million in 2017 — meaning he now hits the free agency pool for the first time in his NFL career.

Peterson can still be a dangerous runner with the ball in his hands, but he has become less suited to the current NFL game the longer his career has lasted. The league has become ever more pass-oriented, and Peterson is a complete non-factor in the passing game.

For his entire career, Peterson has fewer than 2,000 receiving yards, including the playoffs. David Johnson will eclipse that midway through his third season and Le’Veon Bell already has despite missing time in each of the past two seasons. Peterson has five career receiving touchdowns compared to 102 on the ground.

His lack of receiving chops would be an issue on its own, but the bigger problem is that he has never been a capable pass protector, which is far less forgivable for a player of his physical gifts. Only once in his career has he earned a good PFF grade for pass protection, and that was back in 2009. He has averaged around nine total pressures surrendered per season, a figure that 54 running backs bettered in 2016 alone.

Peterson is no factor as a receiver and can’t be trusted to pass block for his QB, and so the Vikings over the past few seasons have often kept him off the field in the most crucial game situations. On third downs, or hurry-up offense, or late in the game, they have pulled Peterson from the field lest they get trapped in passing situations without being able to substitute him off the field.

Peterson has become a two-down running back in a league where those two downs are becoming more like one down.

His work with the ball in his hands has been incredible, but at 31 years old, just a month from his 32nd birthday, there are signs that even those powers are waning.

He averaged a very healthy 3.2 yards per carry after contact over the first seven seasons of his NFL career, a figure that would have been tied for third in 2016 among backs with 100-plus carries to their name. Peterson averaged at least three yards per carry after contact for seven straight seasons to begin his career, but he hasn’t been anywhere near that mark for the past three years. Two of those seasons have been barely there due to suspension and injuries (itself a problem at his advanced age), but the one that wasn’t saw his average after contact plummet to 2.3 yards even if his net yardage figures stayed high.

Peterson now needs to be part of a backfield committee, where he can be the running back while somebody else plays on passing downs. If he can stay healthy – far from a given – he can still have a significant positive impact on a new team, but that role clearly wasn’t worth the $18 million he was scheduled to pick up from the Vikings, and it may prove to have a much lower value than Peterson himself will be looking for.

Peterson’s contract situation will be one of the most interesting free agent storylines, but if he can be picked up for the right contract, he could have an immediate transformative effect on an offense.

| Senior Analyst

Sam is a Senior Analyst at Pro Football Focus, as well as a contributor to ESPN.

  • crosseyedlemon

    Sam’s annual hate piece on Peterson is a broken record. I’m guessing Joe Flacco is next on his list.

    • AJ

      How is this a hate piece? Honestly it’s not unreasonable to say he’s not a bell cow runner anymore. It’s actually much more reasonable than saying he is one, especially for a guy that, even at his peak, wasn’t a major factor on passing downs in a league that becomes more pass happy each year.

      • crosseyedlemon

        History is going to remember RBs for what they achieved rushing and that will always be the ticket that gets them to Canton. Years ago the Cardinals had another back who set the single season record for receptions but he’s a total obscurity to most fans.

        • cka2nd

          Simplistic nonsense. Chuck Foreman is remembered as one of the best, if not the best, all-around backs of the 1970’s, and the best all-around back in Vikings’ history. Yes, he’s not in the HoF and Peterson will get there as a pure runner, but the all-around skills of guys like Foreman, Lenny Moore and even a Walter Payton are not forgotten. Also, while Larry Centers and Rockey Young might be obscure names to most fans, just because their rushing wasn’t as good as their pass receiving doesn’t mean the latter was inconsequential.

          Compared to some of the real hate directed at Peterson at various other sites, Mr. Monson’s piece doesn’t even come close.