Thursday September 17th, 2009

It's a rather exclusive club within the NFL, but by now, there must be a certain exquisite agony shared by the six teams that passed on Adrian Peterson in the first round of the 2007 NFL Draft.

They all had their reasons, but you have to wonder these days if they remember exactly what they were as they watch Peterson's weekly geyser of highlights and consider the ever-increasing possibility that they, in effect, selected Sam Bowie and bypassed the chance to draft Michael Jordan.

The Cleveland Browns, who selected third that year, are just the latest of the six to pay firsthand for their sin of omission. Facing the Browns for the first time last Sunday, on the opening weekend of the NFL's regular season, Peterson gouged them for 180 yards rushing and three touchdowns in Minnesota's 34-20 road win. It marked his fifth 100-yard rushing performance in the eight games he has played against the teams that snubbed him.

Hindsight being 20-20 and all, if we knew then what we know now, the question of whether Peterson should have gone No. 1 overall two years ago elicited a polite collection of "Duhs'' from the NFL sources I spoke to this week.

"The simple answer is I think Adrian Peterson is the best football player in the NFL, so yeah, I don't think there's any doubt he's the No. 1 pick if you could re-do that draft,'' said Mike Mayock, the former NFL safety who is widely respected as the NFL Network's lead draft analyst. "You can talk about starting to build a team around a quarterback, and that's certainly valid. But this kid, he's the best running back I've seen in many, many years, and before he's all done, if he stays healthy, he could be the best of all time.''

That's a mouthful, but the first 33 games of Peterson's NFL career has inspired nothing but lofty declarations. As a rookie in 2007, Peterson burst onto the scene with a 1,341-yard rushing season that earned him NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year honors, and ranked him second behind only San Diego's LaDainian Tomlinson among rushers. The eye-popping highlight of that year was easily his 296-yard game against the Chargers, which by a yard broke Jamal Lewis's NFL one-game rushing record for Baltimore in 2003.

Then came 2008, when Peterson led the league in rushing with 1,760 yards, carried the Vikings to an NFC North title and playoff berth, and started his second consecutive Pro Bowl. After his stellar Week 1 showing of the new season, Peterson is again inspiring a new round of awe and admiration throughout the league.

"Right now it may look a little like Bowie over Jordan, but I don't know anybody in the league who thought he was going to be this good,'' said one long-time NFL personnel man, who's no longer in the business. "He would easily be the first overall pick if you could project backwards, but you can't.''

Let's be honest, Peterson's early NFL experience likely wouldn't have gone quite so smashingly had he not been drafted by Minnesota, which features one of the best offensive lines in the league. And Peterson's situation probably got that much better with the recent addition of Brett Favre to the Vikings, a club whose quarterbacking has suffered from a lack of competency in his first two seasons. To think that Peterson would have enjoyed the same success in Oakland, Detroit, or wherever else he landed is being unrealistic.

But just in case you've lost track after two full years and one game of their third NFL seasons, let's take stock of where the supposedly superior six players taken ahead of Peterson are in comparison to the NFL's best running back, and maybe its best player, period:

1. Oakland quarterback JaMarcus Russell -- The former LSU star remains very much a work in progress, and his track record to this point has been anywhere from mediocre to potential bust territory. Russell is 5-12 in his 17 career starts, with 16 touchdown passes, 14 interceptions, a 53.0 completion percentage and a 72.2 passer rating. The Raiders have yet to make the playoffs since drafting Russell.

2. Detroit receiver Calvin Johnson -- Though the Lions have certainly missed on more than their fair share of first-round receivers this decade, you can't number Johnson among them. Despite being on a dreadful Lions team that is just 7-26 since he arrived, and made NFL history of the wrong kind last year at 0-16, Johnson has lived up to his billing as the top-rated receiver and many teams' top overall prospect heading into the 2007 draft.

He enjoyed a breakthrough 78-catch, 1,331-yard, 12-touchdown season last year, was named an NFC Pro Bowl alternate, and his career totals of 129 receptions for 2,177 yards and 16 touchdowns in 32 career games (27 starts) are rightfully viewed as outstanding production. Obviously, Detroit has gone playoff-less since drafting Johnson.

3. Cleveland offensive tackle Joe Thomas -- The bottom line on Thomas is that he has made all 33 starts at the vital left tackle position for the Browns, and he has two Pro Bowl starts to his credit. Though his second NFL season didn't match the brilliance of his rookie year, when his play was seen as one of the biggest cogs in Cleveland's surprising 10-6 record and No. 10-ranked rushing game, Thomas has been the franchise left tackle the Browns bargained for. But Cleveland is 14-19 in his tenure, without a playoff trip.

4. Tampa Bay defensive end Gaines Adams -- This is the slot where the pain of passing on Peterson really starts intensifying. In terms of top-five impact, Adams has been a disappointment, registering 12½ sacks, two interceptions and one touchdown in 25 career starts. The former Clemson star has not become a consistent pass rush threat as the Bucs have hoped, and Tampa Bay has played in and lost one postseason game since he arrived.

5. Arizona offensive tackle Levi Brown -- The good news is that Brown has started 28 of the 30 games he has played in as a Cardinal, and Arizona did make that memorable Super Bowl last season with him at right tackle. But the reality in the NFL is that right tackles don't carry top-five value -- and yes, we remember that he was drafted to protect the left-handed Matt Leinart's blindside. Moreover, the Cardinals decision to not draft Peterson is made even more curious by their selecting running backs such as Tim Hightower (fifth round, 2008) and Chris "Beanie'' Wells (first round, 2009) the past two years.

6. Washington free safety LaRon Landry -- The Redskins took Landry out of LSU and believed he and Sean Taylor would team up to give them the strongest safety tandem in the league for years to come. But Taylor was murdered late in Landry's rookie season, and any fair analysis of Landry's impact thus far would rate it as very modest. He has started all 33 games since being selected, with two interceptions, two sacks, and 18 passes defensed. In the one playoff game Washington has had in his tenure, Landry picked off two passes in a first-round loss at Seattle. Again, that's not the level of production a team picking as high as No. 6 is banking on.

Eight times in his 33-game NFL career Adrian Peterson has faced one of the six teams that passed on him in the 2007 NFL Draft. Here's how he has fared against them:

From the league sources I talked to regarding the six picks made before the Vikings selected Peterson, the general consensus is that the first three choices -- Russell, Johnson and Thomas -- are all defensible selections given the factors that each team faced.

Oakland was desperate to find a franchise quarterback, and while it remains to be seen if Russell is someone worth their investment, the Raiders acted upon their conviction that he was. If you believe No. 1 value is there at quarterback, you have to be willing to pull the trigger. Johnson is seen as a truly special player himself, albeit on a bad team. His stock will likely continue to improve even more if the Lions can improve. And Thomas has more than filled the bill for the Browns at one of the game's premium positions, going to a pair of Pro Bowls at the vital left tackle slot and paying instant, if not spectacular, dividends.

It's the other three picks ahead of Peterson -- Gaines to Tampa Bay, Brown to Arizona and Landry to Washington -- that look worse by the minute as Peterson's star continues to find a very select firmament.

"Some of those other players are pretty good players,'' said one veteran personnel man in the AFC. "Particularly Calvin Johnson. He's putting up good numbers on a bad team. He was the highest rated player in that draft. But Gaines Adams, it wasn't close then and it's not close now. And Levi Brown, that's almost laughable. And Arizona needed a running back. They had Edgerrin James, but he didn't have much left, and they've gone on to take both Hightower and Wells since then.

"Brown was a good player, but he was not thought of as a great player by any stretch. I don't know how Arizona didn't take [Peterson]. Can you imagine how good that offense would have been last year with Adrian Peterson? You think they might have won the Super Bowl? And I guess Washington didn't take Peterson because they already had [Clinton] Portis and were paying him big money.''

Two very obvious factors worked against Peterson going higher in the 2007 draft: Teams largely draft for need in the NFL, even at the top of the first round. And Peterson entered the league with legitimate questions about his durability, after suffering a series of injuries at Oklahoma. Peterson had knee and ankle injuries in college, and a broken collarbone cost him six games of his junior season, after which he declared for the NFL Draft.

After Peterson's medical exams at the NFL Scouting Combine in February 2007, there were questions within the league about whether he might require surgery to fully repair his collarbone, which he had aggravated in returning to action in the Sooners bowl game. I learned of those injury concerns and wrote a news story detailing them for SI.com. There's no way to definitively know if Peterson's injury history affected his draft status, but there were widespread beliefs that it and his penchant for an upright, contact-seeking running style might lead to a shortened NFL career.

"There were teams scared of his injury situation and his running style, without a doubt,'' the AFC personnel man said. "The injury history was significant. So, yeah, he'd be the No. 1 pick today, but at the time, it looked like he had a lot of wear and tear on his tires. Let's face it, in this league the worst thing you can do is really miss on a guy. Sometimes it's better to hit a double than try to hit a home run.

"Now, obviously, it looks like the Vikings have hit a grand slam, but you do have team doctors for a reason. They take football decisions some times and make them easy. You can't really blame a team that didn't take him because they thought he was an injury concern. You can blame them if they took another player who they had rated higher who they shouldn't have had rated higher.''

And don't forget how much need impacted the top of 2007's first round. The Raiders thought they saw the chance to land their franchise quarterback, and waited until 2008 to fill their running back need with first-rounder Darren McFadden. The Lions had a starting running back in Kevin Jones who was coming off a 2006 season cut short by a foot injury, but opted, as then-general manager Matt Millen was wont to do in the first round, for another receiver in Johnson.

Cleveland had just signed free-agent running back Jamal Lewis to a free-agent deal, and thought it needed to get its offensive line in order with Thomas, who, by the way, helped clear the way for a 1,300-yard season by Lewis in 2007 and protected quarterback Derek Anderson's blindside expertly. Tampa Bay, we suppose, reasoned it already had a quality running back in Cadillac Williams, who went fifth overall in the 2005 draft and had rushed for almost 2,000 yards in his first two seasons. As noted earlier, Portis's presence in Washington sent the Redskins looking to fill other needs.

Then again, the Vikings didn't have a need for Peterson either. They had signed ex-Raven Chester Taylor in free agency before the 2006 season, and he responded with a 1,216-yard rushing season as Minnesota's featured back. But in Peterson the Vikings saw the chance to land not just another first-round running back, but also a game-changing player whose upside was sky high. Taylor's presence actually made the Peterson pick more appealing to Minnesota because there was concern within the organization that the ex-Sooner's collarbone injury might require surgery that year, perhaps costing him any chance to contribute as a rookie.

"I give the Vikings a ton of credit for taking him even after signing Chester Taylor,'' said Mayock, who serves as the color analyst on Minnesota's preseason telecasts. "The tendency is to say, 'We have a tailback, so let's look at another need.' But the Vikings said, 'Wait a minute now. This kid is special, and he has a chance to be dominant.' That's rare.

"You can play running back by committee in this league and find guys down in the third or fourth round. But with Peterson, everything you saw on tape you see now in the league. The warrior mentality, the toughness of his running style. The only question about the kid was his injuries.''

The team that the Vikings feared the most when it came to potentially spoiling their plans to take Peterson at No. 7 was Arizona. But the Cardinals were desperate for an offensive tackle that draft season, and sources say Arizona assistant head coach/offensive line coach Russ Grimm pushed hard for Brown, out of Penn State. The team's scouts were in favor of taking Peterson at No. 5, but were overruled. Minnesota still thought it only 50-50 that Peterson would last until No. 7, and were wary of a team trading up to No. 6 Washington to take Peterson just ahead of it.

Interestingly, but perhaps not tellingly, five of the six teams that picked ahead of Minnesota have undergone coaching changes -- and in some cases, general manager changes -- since passing on Peterson. Oakland, Detroit, Cleveland, Tampa Bay and Washington all have new head coaches since then, and Arizona's Ken Whisenhunt, at that point, was in the opening months of his first head coaching job. The Lions, Browns and Bucs have all cleaned house in the front office as well since the 2007 draft, with owner Al Davis continuing to call all the shots that matter in Oakland. Might anything have been different if one of them had turned in a draft card with Peterson's name on it?

Former Browns general manager Phil Savage is one of those recently unemployed club executives. He told me Thursday morning that Peterson was definitely one of seven players the Browns scouted the most in 2007, along with Thomas, quarterback Brady Quinn, Johnson, Russell, running back Marshawn Lynch (Bills) and cornerback Darrelle Revis (Jets). Cleveland came away with, of course, Thomas at No. 3 and Quinn at No. 22, after trading back into the round with the Cowboys.

"We felt like we needed a quarterback because we didn't know what we had at that point in Derek Anderson and Charlie Frye,'' Savage said. "And having just signed Jamal [Lewis], we thought if we could get Joe Thomas in there that the offensive line could really take a big step toward getting solidified. And honestly, what else could Joe have done so far? He's started two Pro Bowls. Would Peterson have had the same impact running behind our line in Cleveland without Joe Thomas as he has had in Minnesota, running behind Steve Hutchinson, Bryant McKinnie and Matt Birk?''

Savage acknowledges that some within the Browns organization saw Peterson as an injury risk, and the decision came down to playing it safer rather than being sorry at some later date.

"Is Peterson spectacular? Absolutely,'' Savage said. "But he's a running back, so you just don't know. There were injury questions, and maybe over-riding all of this was that we were coming off a year when we lost [center] LeCharles Bentley and [cornerback] Gary Baxter to career-ending knee injuries. We were trying to say, 'What's the wisest decision for us?' Instead of trying to hit one over the trees and over the lake, 300 yards, let's keep it in the fairway and see if we can get our offensive line in order.

"It's easy to sit here and say Adrian Peterson was the obvious pick, but there were a lot of moving parts. He might be able to defy the odds, but he does take a lot of pounding. We'll see how long he can last.''

Even if Peterson's NFL career winds up being more of a shooting star than a slow-burning flame, league sources say the Vikings' pick will be worth if it he leads the franchise to that elusive Super Bowl championship. Titles justify almost all in the NFL.

But as one league source who lauds Minnesota's foresight cautions: "The jury's still out on this thing. I hope the guy is around 10 years. But it's too early to pass judgment. Remember the Reggie Bush-Mario Williams debate and how quickly that changed. You've got to let some time pass. He's special, and he's as good as anyone who's ever played. But it's only two years. Let's let him play.''

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