Now that judge David Doty has vacated the suspension of Vikings running back Adrian Peterson—which is no surprise, as Doty has ruled in favor of players and unions for decades. The NFL has appealed judge Doty's decision and in the meantime has returned Peterson to exempt list. When this situation resolves, the question becomes: What does Peterson have left to offer, and which team is best set to find that out?
Peterson turns 30 next month, and though he once recovered remarkably from a serious knee injury to maintain his status as perhaps the best running back in the game, that was in 2012, and the mileage issues for aging running backs are consistent and severe. Even if Peterson has kept himself in top shape since his suspension last season, he's still got to get back up to speed in an NFL preseason, and that could be more difficult now than it was before.
On the business side of things, Peterson has a $15.4 million cap hit in the 2015 season as part of the seven-year, $96 million contract extension he signed in 2011. If the Vikings were to cut him, Peterson would count $13 million against the team's 2015 salary cap, and the team has about $20 million in cap room at this time for the league year. So, a cut is prohibitive, and keeping Peterson on the team is risky. Where should all parties go from here?
"In my opinion, is it going to be impossible for him to make $12.75 million in 2015? No," NFL agent Blake Baratz told ESPN.com in mid-February. "I think it's a very, very difficult decision for both sides, but if you asked me to pick who has more leverage, it would be Adrian Peterson. He’s already on the books for a certain number. He's 100 percent healthy. The season’s over. There's no risk of injury."
However, per a report from CBS' Jason La Canfora, there was a serious altercation during the recent scouting combine between Ben Dogra, Peterson's agent, and Vikings vice president of football operations Rob Brzezinski in which Dogra claimed that Peterson would never play for the Vikings again. There have been all sorts of conflicting reports regarding Peterson's future in Minneapolis -- some believe that the team is worried about Peterson's physical and mental state since the suspension, and others think that pairing Peterson with quarterback Teddy Bridgewater would give Minnesota's offense a dynamism not seen since Brett Favre played there in 2009. Opposing teams stacked the box like nobody's business when Peterson was in his prime, which would certainly help Bridgewater -- especially given the Vikings' sub-par receiver corps.
“Adrian Peterson is under contract with us," Vikings general manager Rick Spielman said at the combine. "He’s a very unique football player. I’m sure Adrian is doing everything he can do off the field. He made a mistake, he admitted a mistake. I’m sure he’s doing everything he can to not only make himself better as a football player but also a better person off the field—and that’s the type of person Adrian is. He’s a suspended player right now and then we’ll see where it goes from there. But there’s no question, I don’t think any—and I’ve said this before—I don’t think any team in the NFL wouldn’t want an Adrian Peterson-caliber running back on their football team.”
The Vikings could decide that the risk is worth the reward, and if they're not able to get any relief from the cap situation (they'll unquestionably petition the NFL for that), it could be worth taking a one-year flyer. On the other hand, the team believes in young running back Jerick McKinnon, and it may be best for all involved to move on.
The other option for the Vikings is to look for a trade partner. Which leads us to ...
A story from ESPN's Don Van Natta last August indicated that Peterson called Jerry Jones and expressed interest in playing for the Cowboys at the end of his time with the Vikings.
"Well, I understand, Adrian," Jones reportedly responded. "I'd like that, too ... Well, I love your story. I love your daddy's story. I've always respected what you've been about. I've always been a fan of yours.
"Well, we'll see what we can do, if we can make that happen," Jones continued. "Hmm-hmm. ... I'd like that, too. ... Well, we're talking pig Latin here, but let's see if we can do that. We're talking pig Latin here, but let's see what we can do about that. OK, Adrian, thanks."
The Cowboys have a serious decision to make with running back DeMarco Murray, who led the NFL in rushing with 1,845 yards on a franchise-record 393 carries last season. Murray will be a free agent at the start of the new league year, and Jones will have to weigh Murray's workload and future—along with the benefits given to Murray by Dallas's outstanding offensive line—against the financial considerations of a new contract. The Cowboys will almost certainly give receiver Dez Bryant the franchise tag if they can't come to terms on a new contract, which is Murray's problem—he's not the most valued free agent on the list, no matter how important he was last season. The Cowboys will be butting up against the cap with a new Bryant deal or tag, which makes a Peterson deal prohibitive, but Jones has become an expert at pushing cap charges from the current year into future years.
You can look down the list of NFL teams with depleted rushing attacks and wonder where Peterson would best fit, but the more pressing question is, who will take the risk? Yes, Peterson was a truly special player at his peak, but that peak was three years ago—and that might as well be 30 in running back years. When you add the potential political blowback to any team willing to trade for him to the value judgment that must be made in inheriting the overall deal, and you then factor in a deep running backs class in the 2015 draft ... Adrian Peterson's future may not be as sure as it once was.