METAIRIE, La. — Adrian Peterson was the 2003 U.S. Army National Player of the Year as a senior at Palestine (Texas) High, and Rivals.com’s No. 1-ranked prospect in the class of 2004. He was a Heisman finalist as a freshman at Oklahoma, and rushed for 4,041 yards in 31 games there. The Vikings drafted him seventh overall in 2007, he was the NFL rookie of the year and was named All-Pro three times and a Pro Bowler six times in his first seven NFL seasons.
Even after missing all but one game of the 2014 season while facing child abuse charges, he came back to win his third rushing title in 2015.
So this spring was different.
For the first time in his life, Peterson’s ability was roundly agreed to be descending. That’s how it goes for a 32-year-old back coming off knee surgery with 2,418 carries in the rear view mirror—unemployed for 47 days, without a football team for the first time since he can remember, and waiting for the call that finally came from the Saints in late April.
“Yeah, it was different,” Peterson said in a quiet moment Wednesday. “But I knew coming off the meniscus tear [in September that ended his 2016 season], it could happen. If I came out and led the league in rushing, I’d have been off the market. That wasn’t the situation I was in. So in my mind—this is the situation, this is the position you’re in, it’s not what you envisioned going into the off-season, but this is where you’re at, so how are you gonna handle it?
“I got down at times. But I always stayed up too. I was able to allow myself to get down, and I felt bad when I needed to. I’d snap right out of it, I knew when I had to tighten up. That’s all it was.”
Think he might still be down? Ask him if he’s lost a step.
“No,” he answered, maintaining eye contact. “I’ve lost nothing.”
This week’s Game Plan will wrap up the final week of off-season programs for NFL teams—and we’ll look at the Dolphins’ next star receiver, the remaking of the Cowboys’ offensive line, the problem now for the Lions’ offensive line, the changing of some officiating phraseology and next year’s quarterback crop.
We’ll start with my assignment to try to figure out what Peterson has left. Not many running backs make it to age 32 in the NFL, especially ones who have the mileage and employ the kind of jackhammer style that the former MVP does.
And I know what you’re thinking, because it’s what I was thinking. I’m not here to convince you Peterson is going to shed precedent the way he has so many tacklers over his decade in the NFL. We’ll see in the fall whether he can do it or not. You could fill a warehouse with a record of impressive Junes that meant little in October.
What I will say is this: He believes it’s going to happen. And he’ll tell you why.
“It’s knowing what I was able to do on the field before I got injured, knowing that the meniscus was completely healed, I tore 90 percent of it, and it was no longer a factor. And then it was getting into my regimen—nothing had changed,” Peterson said. “I was still explosive, fast, working with all the young guys, I didn’t have no doubt at all.
“Outside sources that doubt because of age? I led the league when I was 30, and it was the same thing then. He’s going downhill. I played with a mediocre offensive line and still led the league at 30. I just look at things different. If I started buying into what everyone was saying, I probably would’ve retired three or four years ago.”
The truth is, what I saw Wednesday didn’t reveal a ton. Mark Ingram took the first snap with Drew Brees’s group during 11-on-11 walkthroughs, and Peterson was first when the Saints went closer to full speed. Peterson still looks fearsome physically, and glides confidently through a front seven like he’s on ice skates. He dropped a ball in the flat during 7-on-7. Other than that, there weren’t many hiccups.
But if you talk to the guys who really know—his teammates—they pretty much uniformly glow about him. When I asked Saints safety Kenny Vaccaro, a native Texan, he joked, “I mean, you don’t want to get my opinion. My whole life growing up, I thought Adrian Peterson was the man.
And then Vaccaro, and a lot of his teammates, told me that Peterson still is the man. Here’s a sampling …
• Vaccaro:“It’s his motor. Even when we do walkthroughs, he’s so explosive. What did it for me, when we put on the tape a couple times, he’s still pulling off on DBs. And he’s gliding. It’s pretty amazing. You see the way he works, you see the body. It’s incredible. It doesn’t seem like he’s lost a step.”
• DT Sheldon Rankins: “There were two moments where I was like, ‘That’s Adrian Peterson.’ We were doing agility drills, and just watching him move, I’m like, ‘That’s the guy they’re counting out?’ He looked as explosive as I’ve ever seen anyone. And then, might’ve been a couple weeks ago, there was one run, he busted through the line and he just hits a gear and starts pulling away from people. And that’s when I was like, ‘He hasn’t lost it whatsoever.’”
• QB Drew Brees:“He’s coming off an injury, 32-year-old running back and typically that’s over the hill, but there’s an intensity there, a presence, a work ethic. And you watch him, and you’re like, Wow, I don’t see how anybody tackles that guy. … And his size. Usually, if I close my eyes and put the ball out, this is where I’m handing it off to most running backs.” [He indicates where, then lifts his arms up.] And here’s where I’m gonna hand it off to Adrian Peterson, just because he’s that much bigger and taller.”
• CB Delvin Breaux: “The first time he was in weight room, we’re in the off-season program and he was in there, and he had the box at 42, 48 [inches] and he was single legging, jumping on the box. It was like, ‘Damn, that guy just had knee surgery?’ That was the first time I had a wow moment, and then seeing him on the field, it’s crazy. He’s still got the juice. I can’t wait to play with him.”
• C Max Unger: “We’re seeing the things that we’ve historically seen from him. I’ve played against him going back to 2005, in college, and he looks great. Watching him go downhill and hit the line of scrimmage, it’s impressive. It’s what we’ve seen in the past. … From the time he gets the ball to when he gets to the line of scrimmage, it’s evident he’s done something right this off-season. It looks fantastic.”
• WR Mike Thomas: “We’re out there practicing on the turf, and he’s literally wearing Adidas regular shoes. Not turf shoes. Not cleats. And he’s still cutting and he’s still full speed. There’s no slowing down, and you’d think he has cleats on. And you look at his feet and he’s got the normal shoes on.”
• Defensive coordinator Dennis Allen: “There are have been some plays where it’s, Wooo! You didn’t really see him come through the hole, and it’s like, where’d he come from? You see that burst and explosion.”
Again, it’s June. And none of these guys are going to bash Peterson anyway. But my observation being here? The way the guys’ eyes lit up talking about those moments made you feel like they just spotted Bigfoot.
“It’s still just such a surprise that it actually happened,” Brees said. “We really signed Adrian Peterson? Mark is such a great player, and so it was amazing he came to us, and I think it says a lot about how he views our organization. …. Knowing that he wants this to be his last stop. And here we go. That puts a little added responsibility on all of us—‘OK, this is our window, let’s go do it.’”
Peterson says now that the idea his career could be over after last year never entered his mind. And Vikings staffers told me they didn’t think he’d lost much physically before he got hurt last year. The bigger questions, as they saw them, would be avoiding injury at his age, whether he could adjust his game to fit a new offense, and if he’d be OK with playing in a rotation.
We don’t have an answer to the first question yet, but there are good signs on the other two counts.
“He went from being what he is—which is a first-ballot Hall of Famer—to, ‘Hey, you’re gonna split carries and come off some,’” said Strief. “It could be a tough situation and go in a negative direction. It’s been the opposite. He’s come in and worked his butt off with the guys. He really is one of the guys, which is probably nice for him too.”
Ideally, the Saints can pair Ingram and a revitalized Peterson to lighten the load on the 38-year-old Brees, who said he’d be fine with an attack that’s more run-heavy than the pass-happy Saints have been.
History is not on the side of it all happening the way these guys are hoping that it will as Peterson slashes through the box in non-contact 11-on-11 work. But that’s part of what’s pushing him now. Like he did in coming back off ACL surgery to nearly break Eric Dickerson’s single-season rushing record, or winning a rushing title at 30, Peterson wants to prove he can do what logic says he can’t.
“It definitely motivates me. It’s not at the top of the list,” Peterson said. “If I had 100 things, it’d probably be right there at 90. But I do want to show people that, Hey, age is all up here. It’s mental. Take care of your body and do the right things, you can do some incredible things. You let your mind be defeated and you’ll be in trouble.”
Peterson doesn’t think he is, despite what conventional wisdom would tell him. And I’m not going to tell you that I know where this one is headed. But based on what I saw and heard here, it’ll be fun to find out.
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FIRST AND 10
1. Bengals running back Joe Mixon hasn’t wasted any time impressing his coaches. His high-end acceleration and size/speed ratio have stood out, as has his work to improve in pass protection, which is often what keeps rookie backs off the field. Asked how he looks, one Cincinnati staffer answered: “Like a beast.”
2. Not surprising that the Texans would remain steadfast behind Tom Savage as starter through the spring. Bill O’Brien’s offense is complex, and while it could be scaled back to accommodate a growing rookie like Deshaun Watson, the team is a contender. Which is to say they’re not really in the best position to do that.
3. It’s also not surprising to see that Paxton Lynch is starting to make leaps playing for new/old Broncos offensive coordinator Mike McCoy. What McCoy is best at is adapting his scheme for the quarterback he has, and that’s why the talented Lynch has been a threat to unseat Trevor Siemian from the jump.
4. Good move by the Chargers to take care of Melvin Ingram. So much of defensive coordinator Gus Bradley’s scheme is predicated on having edge rushers who can get home. He didn’t have enough in Jacksonville. In L.A., he has Ingram and Joey Bosa.
5. This is going to sound clichéd because of who his brother is, but T.J. Watt was seen as an exceptional leader with great football character coming out of Wisconsin, and those traits are already showing up in Pittsburgh. The next task for the coaches will be figuring how to deploy the versatile 22-year-old.
6. In one way, it’s frightening hearing about how long concussions are sidelining guys like Bears outside linebacker Leonard Floyd and Panthers tackle Michael Oher. In another, it’s a sign of progress—in the caution teams are taking with players who are truly struggling with a problem.
7. My favorite quote of this big minicamp week, without question, came from Browns quarterback Brock Osweiler: “I want to be the starter of this team.” These are the things that make you pine for the dog days of actual training camp.
8. Derek Carr said the other day he’s seeing a more aggressive Amari Cooper, and that’s a good sign that new Raiders offensive coordinator Todd Downing’s changes are taking hold. Downing’s plan has been to tailor and streamline the offense to his players’ talents, which should make them play faster.
9. New Redskins senior vice president of player personnel Doug Williams is a good man and should be a sensible leader for the scouting operation there. But Monday’s move said what the brass wouldn’t come out and say explicitly: Team president Bruce Allen is still carrying the hammer.
10. Free-agent receiver Eric Decker visited Nashville on Wednesday and would be a good fit there. Another team to keep an eye on here is the Browns, who have done some work on the ex-Jet.
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1. Dolphins believe Parker is ready to break out. The caveat on anything written in this space at this time of year is this: It’s June, they don’t even have pads on, there’s a long way to go. Got it? Good. That said, the Dolphins are over the moon with the progress of third-year receiver DeVante Parker and holding their breath that he’ll keep it up.
Parker has grown into his 6'3" frame, looks physically toned, stronger and more flexible (an important piece, given his injury history). Always viewed as an immense talent with great hands, ball skills and an ability to go up and get it, he’s now got a better knowledge of everything around him, making him more aggressive with his routes and more reliable in finding the holes in zones and being where Ryan Tannehill expects him to be. Bottom line: Parker has shown signs that he’s going to grow into a true No. 1.
How might that affect the team? Well, obviously, you’d rather have one of those than not. But it also could give the club leverage in its negotiations with fourth-year receiver Jarvis Landry, who’s going into the final year of his rookie deal. Things haven’t exactly been perfect with Landry—he can be up and down, and has clashed some with the staff—and the team just signed Kenny Stills to a four-year, $32 million deal. If Parker comes through as the staff now believes he might, it certainly could make the Dolphins think twice about how far they’re willing to go to lock up Landry, who has 204 catches the last two years, with a decision on the fifth-year option on Parker’s deal due next spring, when he’ll be eligible for a long-term contract for the first time. Lots of moving parts here, with this looming potentially good problem for Miami to have.
2. Will the Cowboys’ offensive line still be overwhelming?Over the course of this decade, as the team has dropped first-round pick on top of first-round pick, and big contract extension after big contract extension on offensive linemen, the Cowboys’ identity and personality have grown to flow through the big guys up front. And that’s why I think the sneaky big story this spring down in Dallas—as the focus has been on Dak Prescott (he’s looked great) and Zeke Elliott (he’s had to work himself back into playing shape) and the defensive changes—is happening in that position group. To be clear, with Tyron Smith at left tackle, Zack Martin at right guard and Travis Frederick at center, this area’s going to remain a strength. But there’s turnover at right tackle and left guard, and if an overwhelming strength becomes just a strength, that could mean something in what should be a competitive NFC East.
The Cowboys’ hope is with La’el Collins, who should be a dominant run blocker at right tackle, and his limitations in pass protection can be managed given that Dallas has an athletic right-handed quarterback. And Chaz Green has ability and versatility to play just about anywhere on the line; he just has to stay healthy, and at left guard would be playing between Smith and Frederick. Now, if Green can’t stay healthy, and if Collins, whom the team is fully expecting to keep at tackle, struggles on the outside? Then, you’d have tackle Emmett Cleary (a guard working at tackle), ex-draft bust Jonathan Cooper (a guard who’s been working at center) and Joe Looney (a guard/center) competing for snaps.
There’s plenty that has to play out here, and it’ll be interesting how that affects the Cowboys’ two sophomore stars, who leaned on the line last year to have historic rookie seasons.
3. Losing Decker is a devastating blow for Detroit.When the Lions signed Ravens right tackle Ricky Wagner in March, it wasn’t that they were looking to move on from Riley Reiff. But in Wagner they saw a longer linemen who could anchor better and add some edge to their group up front. The downside? They’d lose Reiff’s flexibility to play on both sides of the line. And now, they’ll pay a price for that.
With left tackle Taylor Decker out indefinitely after shoulder surgery to repair a torn labrum—and they believed Decker was on course to become a franchise blind-side protector—Detroit has a hole to fill without the easy solution that Reiff, now Minnesota’s left tackle, would’ve given them. So Wagner will stay on the right side. And if the season started today, odds are that former undrafted free-agent Cornelius Lucas, who has six NFL starts, would be protecting Matthew Stafford’s blind side. Since the season doesn’t start today, the front-runner might be the guy who’s not available now, and that’s 2015 seventh-round pick Corey Robinson, who ascended to the top backup job last season, played well in two starts at right tackle, also started a game as a blocking tight end, and was a left tackle in college.
But no matter how you slice it, this situation isn’t ideal after the spring began with so much optimism surrounding a retooled line with Wagner and T.J. Lang taking the places of Reiff and Larry Warford. Best-case scenario now? The Lions are better (as they expect to be) on the interior than they have been, tread water at left tackle for the time being, and then, when Decker returns, this area becomes the big strength that everyone internally believed it would based on the work they saw in April and May. (The Lions aren’t wasting time looking for more options at the position—on Thursday morning they dealt for Rams OT Greg Robinson, the former second overall pick, and signed former Bills second-rounder Cyrus Kouandjio.)
4. Officiating change that has deeper meaning. This year, Sarah Thomas—the first female official in NFL history—was set to take a step up to become a head linesman. And, well, the title didn’t really fit. So, I’m told, the NFL is making a change there, and the head linesman on every crew will now be known as the “down judge.” What does it mean? Well, for you, it means there’ll be a “DJ” on the back of an official’s jersey, rather than it saying “HL.” The name change is something the league has talked about for a little while, making it so there’s the referee, an umpire and five judges on the field. But it’s also a subtle shift to: A) recognize Thomas, and B) to encourage more women to pursue officiating.
The NFL’s certainly had some rough moments with female fans over the past few years, most notably with its handling of the domestic violence problems of 2014. But there’s no question that an effort’s been made to change that, through the hiring of Lisa Friel as special counsel for investigations, the emergence of women in coaching internships, and more recently Thomas becoming an official and the league office hiring former Dolphins exec Dawn Aponte to the new role of chief administrator of football operations. No matter the motive, it’s good to see that the push to become more progressive didn’t stop when the PR mess did.
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OFF-SEASON LESSON TO TAKE WITH YOU
Last week, we detailed how Jets owner Woody Johnson is believed to be hot after the No. 1 pick for next year, with the ouster of Eric Decker and David Harris served up as a smoking gun.
Johnson’s train of thought isn’t complicated. He wants a franchise quarterback. And it looks as if three players with the capacity to go first overall could be available next April. So here’s our off-season lesson of this final slow week before the league goes dead for a while: How these things look in the aftermath of one draft isn’t always how they wind up falling before the next draft.
Last year at this time Patrick Mahomes wasn’t on the radar of many teams, and Mitch Trubisky’s first college start was in front of him. Deshaun Watson was more of a known quantity, of course, but precisely no one would’ve guessed that he’d go after the other two were off the board.
USC’s Sam Darnold, Wyoming’s Josh Allen and UCLA’s Josh Rosen have given teams reason for hope. But for now, that’s all it is. Darnold has nine collegiate starts and a long windup. Allen, like Darnold, will go into this season as more of a known quantity than he was a year ago. And Allen is pretty raw. Rosen, meanwhile, was hurt last year, has off-field questions and has to prove he can perform in a pro offense.
Here’s how one AFC exec described the three to me on Wednesday:
• Allen: “He has the best traits of the three—size, athletics, arm strength. He’s just raw. Picture a better version of Patrick Mahomes.”
• Darnold: “He’s accurate, and he’s only 19 years old, so you hope he’s going to get stronger. Everyone’s going to pick apart his throwing motion, but there’s not a lot he can’t do.”
• Rosen: “He’s the prettiest—gorgeous, just gorgeous. He has to find a way to prove he’s a good kid and can stay healthy and has a passion for the game. He has everything else.”
An AFC college scouting director, when assessing the three, said he likes Darnold the best of them: “He was impressive when he took over, he’s got the size, arm talent and tools that you want in a pocket passer.” He also acknowledged Allen probably has the highest ceiling. And Rosen is, in the minds of many, the guy who looks the most natural. “Every ball spins beautifully,” is how one of his coaches put it.
Which is all to say that, yes, it very much could be that kind of year where quarterbacks go 1-2-3.
But we have a long way to go before we get to next April. So the best laid plans of the Jets, and others lurking, certainly could go awry.
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