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Most running backs would look back on a 1,266-yard, 11-touchdown season and celebrate one of the best years of their career. But Adrian Peterson is not most running backs.
The 1,266 yards and 4.5 yards-per-carry Peterson racked up last year represented the second-lowest totals in his seven years in the league. He found the end zone 11 times, but that, too, was the second-fewest trips he has ever made to paydirt. As such, a season in which he amassed 209.7 fantasy points in standard-scoring leagues, a total that would rank in the top 10 among running backs in all but two of the last 10 seasons, was considered a mild disappointment for the player who is still the best pure running back in the league. It also should give fantasy owners confidence that even though he’s approaching 30 and will surpass the 2,500-touch mark for his career this season, Peterson is still every bit the fantasy monster he has been since his rookie year.
Valuing Peterson, however, is not simply a question of how well he will play this season. Right off the bat, we can say that he is comfortably part of what is emerging as a consensus top-five at the running-back position that also includes Jamaal Charles, Matt Forte, LeSean McCoy and Eddie Lacy. All five of these guys are workhorses for their teams, and will get the goal-line carries. Charles, Forte and McCoy, especially the former two, are deadly catching the ball out of the backfield.
All of these guys will be off the board within the first seven or eight picks of most fantasy drafts, and rightfully so. Ranking Peterson as low as fifth among them wouldn’t be a knock on him, but rather an acknowledgement of how good the top of the running back position is this year. It would, however, also be a mistake.
While Peterson is a force unto himself, every football player is necessarily dependent on the environment around him. Luckily for Peterson, his improved during the offseason. It all starts with new offensive coordinator Norv Turner. For all his failings as a head coach, Turner has been among the brightest offensive minds in the game ever since he got his first gig. Emmitt Smith led the league in rushing during all three of Turner’s years as the Cowboys’ offensive coordinator. Frank Gore had the most yards (1,695), carries (312) and yards per carry (5.4) during Turner’s lone year as the 49ers’ OC in 2006. LaDainian Tomlinson led the NFL with 1,474 yards and 15 rushing touchdowns in Turner’s first year as the head coach in San Diego. Turner has undoubtedly had great running back talent at his disposal during his career, but he has also proved adept at using it. The same cannot be said of former Minnesota OC Bill Musgrave. Turner represents a massive upgrade for Peterson, as well as the Vikings offense as a whole.
Despite having one of the best short-yardage backs in the league, Musgrave called pass plays on 51.2 percent of the Vikings’ red-zone snaps. That was an increase of about three percentage points from 2012 and five percentage points from '11. Peterson had 60 carries in the red zone and 15 inside the five in '12. Those numbers fell to 39 and seven last year. The Vikings ran 20 fewer plays inside the 20 last year than they did in Peterson’s record-setting '12, and he had 21 fewer touches in the red zone. Marginalizing your best player when closest to scoring range does not seem to be the best way to run an offense.
Teddy Bridgewater may not start right away, but it’s safe to say the clock is already ticking on the Matt Cassel/Christian Ponder era in Minnesota, which is great news for Peterson. If the Vikings can at least somewhat legitimize their passing game, a development that will only be helped by further inclusion of Cordarrelle Patterson, they will be able to relieve some of the pressure heaped on Peterson’s broad shoulders. The Vikings also return all five starters from last year’s offensive line that ranked eighth in the league in run blocking, according to Pro Football Focus.
So, the question remains. Where does Peterson rank? Despite the case built above, he is not my No. 1 player. The very best fantasy running backs in today’s NFL are just as dangerous as receivers as they are as runners. That is why Peterson is third on my board, trailing Charles and Forte. Still, he’s a prime piece when building a championship roster.
Most overvalued player
Cordarrelle Patterson, WR -- If Patterson were on another team, he probably would not earn this distinction. However, until we see some progress from the Minnesota passing game, I have trouble with Patterson as a comfortable WR2, which is what his ADP suggests he is. So much has to go right to get passes to a receiver with the consistency to make him a regular starter in fantasy leagues. I am not convinced the Vikings can make that happen for Patterson, especially with Cassel or Ponder under center. Patterson is in the same pick range as DeSean Jackson, Michael Floyd and Torrey Smith. I’d rather have any of those three than the buzzy second-year man in Minnesota.
Most undervalued player
Kyle Rudolph, TE -- Injuries limited Rudolph to just eight games last year, but he still put up a respectable 30 receptions for 313 yards and three touchdowns. His red-zone numbers from last year can’t really be trusted since they represent such a small sample, but he got 37 percent of the Vikings’ red-zone targets in 2012. No tight end received a greater portion of his team’s targets inside the 20, and only Heath Miller (20) and Rob Gronkowski (18) had more passes thrown their way in the red zone than did Rudolph (17). He’s a sure-fire TE1.
QB: Matt Cassel, Christian Ponder, Teddy Bridgewater
RB: Adrian Peterson, Matt Asiata, Jerick McKinnon
WR: Cordarrelle Patterson, Greg Jennings, Jarius Wright, Jerome Simpson, Adam Thielen, Erik Lora
TE: Kyle Rudolph, Rhett Ellison
The Vikings’ defense was terrible by every single metric last season. It surrendered 397.6 yards and 30 points per game. It allowed opposing quarterbacks an average rating of 98.6, which means that “quarterbacks playing the Vikings” had the eighth-best quarterback rating in the league, just behind Russell Wilson. Pro Football Focus ranked the Vikings as the ninth-worst overall defense, 10th-worst against the run and second-worst in pass coverage. Fantasy owners rightly wanted nothing to do with Minnesota’s defense last year.
GM Rick Spielman immediately set out to fix the unit by first revamping the coaching staff. He fired Leslie Frazier and brought in new head coach Mike Zimmer, who spent the last six years as the defensive coordinator in Cincinnati. Under Zimmer, the Bengals ranked fourth in total defense in 2009, seventh in '11, sixth in '12 and third last year. After hiring Zimmer, the team tabbed George Edwards as the new defensive coordinator. Edwards had been the Dolphins’ linebacker’s coach for the past two seasons, and has three years experience as a coordinator, most recently with the Bills in 2010 and '11.
With the coaching ranks filled, the new brain trust selected Anthony Barr, a linebacker out of UCLA, with the ninth overall pick in the draft. Barr was an All-America last year, racking up 20 tackles for loss, 10 sacks and five forced fumbles. He is expected to start right away at strong-side linebacker, and should immediately be considered in IDP leagues.
The rest of the defense returns largely intact, though the Vikings did sign cornerback Captain Munnerlyn away from Carolina. Still, the Vikings are shaky for leagues that use team defense. Linebacker Chad Greenway, free safety Harrison Smith and defensive ends Everson Griffen and Brian Robison are all worthy of IDP consideration, with Greenway and Harrison both ranking toward the top of their respective positions.