Where will Adrian Peterson play football this season, and what kind of player is the team who ends up with him getting?
Adrian Peterson's drawn-out suspension from NFL activities is set to come to an end. The league announced that the Vikings running back has been informed he will be reinstated from the commissioner's exempt list on Friday and is free to return to the team after missing the final 15 games of 2014 following his indictment in September on child abuse charges in Texas. While Peterson will surely return to the field this fall, his reinstatement is far from the end of the saga. Peterson rejoins a team that was left to twist in the wind with his playing status in limbo over the past several months, and trade rumors have swirled around the six-time Pro Bowler who has led the league in rushing twice during his eight-year career.
Where will Peterson play in 2015, and what kind of player will the team who ends up with him be getting? Chris Burke and Doug Farrar take a look into the future of the former All-Pro running back in SI's latest Cover Two.
Where will Peterson play this season?
Chris Burke: Other potential suitors might make more sense, but the Peterson-to-Dallas dots still connect too well. Perhaps the most meaningful argument against the Cowboys swinging for the fences here is that it would fly in the face of their very recent approach—a measured, conservative one compared to some of Jerry Jones's free-for-all off-seasons.
On the other hand, the Cowboys took a step back toward their norm by signing Greg Hardy, who is likely facing an NFL suspension of his own at some point soon. Peterson's at least clear for action now, whereas Hardy remains on the commissioner's exempt list.
In two weeks, Dallas could go the safer route in an attempt to replace DeMarco Murray by diving into a deep draft class of running backs. Should Melvin Gordon or Todd Gurley land in their laps, that play has a real shot to work. But it also slightly overlooks how crucial Murray was to the Cowboys' 2014 playoff run. As a reminder, he had 449 touches and was responsible for nearly 2,300 yards. For even the most NFL-ready rookies in this draft, those numbers are unreachable; Gurley figures to be especially limited due to his knee injury, at least to start the season.
In other words, if the Cowboys really, truly want their offense to stay near the numbers it put up last season, the best option available is Peterson. They have the cap space to make it happen, especially if Peterson agrees to restructure his current deal (as he should).
Doug Farrar: Dallas. Peterson could still play in Minnesota, but the well has been pretty seriously poisoned on both sides, no matter what Peterson or various members of the Vikings' front office and coaching staff may say. This feels very much like a situation where it's best for all involved to move on. Much has been made of Peterson's preference for playing in his home state of Texas, and the Cowboys would be a great place for him to land, with the NFL's best run-blocking offensive line, the need for a feature back after the free-agency departure of DeMarco Murray and an owner in Jerry Jones who isn't afraid to make waves in the interest of attendance and winning football.
If the Vikings trade him, what can they expect to get in return?
Burke: Unless the Vikings are 100% determined to get Peterson off their roster, at some point the return on a trade defers to the value of holding onto him.
So, what's realistic? The Eagles dealt LeSean McCoy this offseason for Kiko Alonso. Trent Richardson infamously earned the Browns a first-round pick when he was sent to Indianapolis in 2013. Marshawn Lynch was dealt to Seattle back in 2011 for a fourth-rounder and a fifth-rounder.
A guess: Minnesota would take a return somewhere in that Lynch ballpark, if it finds a trading partner. It wouldn't surprise me if the Vikings wound up with a third-round pick or something slightly worse. Peterson can be cut with ease because his guaranteed money is gone, but any team adding his onerous salary for the next three years still has to make some sort of decision on Peterson's financial future. Oh, and he hasn't played in a year and will come with potential off-field distractions.
If the Vikings want to trade Peterson and can add a pick within the first two days of the draft in the process, they should do so.
Farrar: Very little. Peterson has a potentially crippling series of salary cap hits over the next three seasons if he's on the roster of the team that trades for him under his current contract. Peterson is due $12.75 million for the 2015 season, with a $15.4 million cap hit. His base salaries move up to $14.5 million in 2016 and $16.5 million in 2017, and the cap hits are just as severe: $15 million in 2016, then $17 million in the final year. There's no cap hit if he's released after the 2015 season, but the team taking him will suffer whatever p.r. blowback may come and have a lot of their 2015 cap tied up for their troubles. Peterson can always renegotiate as part of the terms of a trade, but even if that's written in stone, the Vikings would be lucky to get more than a mid-round pick for him. The cost is simply too high in other areas.
What are reasonable expectations for Peterson on the field in 2015?
Burke: Do we lower the bar because Peterson has not played since Week 1 of last season? Or does the lengthy absence work to the benefit of a 30-year-old back with upwards of 2,000 carries on his NFL resume? I'm inclined to lean toward the latter.
In 2013, Peterson rushed for 1,266 yards, caught 29 passes and scored 11 touchdowns in 14 games. Assuming he does not show up to camp in awful shape, those are realistic goals for him. He's probably not going to repeat his 2,097-yard rushing display from 2012, but he's too talented, even now, to fall off the map.
A healthy, focused Peterson was still a top-five back when we last saw him. There is little reason to believe that he cannot be again, if only for a couple more seasons.
Farrar: Short-term expectations: fairly high. Long-term: highly questionable. Peterson turned 30 last month, and backs 30 years old and over have rushed for over 1,000 yards in a single season 45 times in NFL history. Tiki Barber gained 1,860 yards for the Giants in 2005 at age 30, gained 1,662 yards the next season and was out of football by 2007. Curtis Martin gained a league-leading 1,697 yards for the Jets in 2004 and was similarly out of the game two seasons later. Walter Payton averaged 1,522 yards per season in the first three years of his thirties, but he was the best running back—and perhaps the best player—in league history. As much as Peterson has produced, it's unfair to compare him to Payton, especially since he's been away from the game for so long.
Peterson broke all the running back durability rules by rushing for over 2,000 yards the year after undergoing surgery for a torn ACL and MCL, but there's no guarantee that he'll continue to be such an outlier. In 2013, his last full season, Peterson's yards per carry dropped from 6.0 to 4.5. Is it reasonable to say that he still has the capacity for a couple more 1,000-yard seasons? Certainly, but beyond that, it's very much buyer beware. Even if Peterson's career had gone off without a hitch to date, his position doesn't lend itself to longevity.