Top of the class

Publish date:

Each is dressed in a suit as part of April's NFL draft festivities. Two quarterbacks with potential. A receiver with great hands. A pass-rusher with speed. A running back with a question mark.

Peterson, who entered the draft with concerns surrounding his durability, slipped to the seventh pick, and the Minnesota Vikings became the beneficiaries of what could be the greatest rushing season a rookie has ever known. Nobody is asking about Peterson's collarbone now.

"He's not afraid of contact," Ernie Sims, the Detroit Lions linebacker, said after facing Peterson earlier in the season. "His body looks like a veteran, his physical attributes. I think he's going to be the same for years to come."

After bringing Peterson along slowly in the early weeks, Minnesota coach Brad Childress is calling Peterson's number more often and the results have been staggering. Sharing the same field with San Diego's LaDainian Tomlinson on Sunday, Peterson set a new single-game rushing record with 296 yards. Each week he seems to unveil a new wrinkle or garner some new comparison.

Is he the second coming of Eric Dickerson, with that size, speed and upright running style? Does he have a sprinkle of Gale Sayers, with that quickness, shiftiness and cutback ability? Does he even look like a rookie?

"I don't look at him as a rookie," Sims said.

Peterson's jump from Palestine High to the University of Oklahoma had a similar feel. As a freshman he rushed for 1,925 yards, setting the Oklahoma single-season record and NCAA record for a freshman. He has made the leap to the pros -- following just three seasons in college -- look similarly stress free.

Defensive coordinators recognize Peterson's gifts both as a game-breaker and a runner who can move the chains. "He runs one way and that's hard," said Lions defensive coordinator Joe Barry. "If you ever meet him on the sideline, he's never going to run out of bounds. He's going to try to run over you, get a couple more yards. He's a special back, no doubt about it."

If there are no doubts now, there were at least some whispers leading up to the draft. At Oklahoma, Peterson missed seven games last season with a broken collarbone. Of the five college stars who twirled on ties and posed for pictures on draft weekend, only Quinn's wait to find a team was longer than Peterson's. None has come close to matching Peterson in production.

Russell missed training camp and is waiting for his pro first snap. Johnson has played, but he has been limited by a back injury. Quinn hasn't thrown a pass since the preseason. Adams has 1.5 sacks.

Peterson, meanwhile, is closing in on rookie of the year honors and might get a few votes for league Most Valuable Player.

"I came in confident, knowing that if I worked hard everything else will fall into place," Peterson said during the Vikings' bye week. "There is nothing wrong with shooting for the moon. I want to help my team get to the playoffs and the goal is to get to the Super Bowl. If not, what are you playing for?"

Peterson's off-the-field adjustments have gone smoothly as well. Like many veteran running backs, Peterson brings home video cut-ups of the defenses he will face, trying to figure out which ones rely on power and which ones get by on speed.

But it hasn't been all work for Peterson. He uses one of the six flat screen televisions at his home to play videogames against his half-brother, Derrick, who lives with him.

On a recent night, Derrick played Madden NFL '08 against the computer while Peterson looked on. Derrick was Minnesota, the computer was Chicago. On back-to-back runs, the animated Peterson was stuffed at the line of scrimmage, including a bone-jarring tackle from linebacker Brian Urlacher.

The real-life Peterson was unmoved.

"My skills on the field are a lot better," he said.

No one disagrees with that.