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Where Will Adrian Peterson End Up in 2015?

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On Friday, an independent arbitrator upheld the NFL’s decision to suspend Adrian Peterson indefinitely for disciplining his 4-year-old son with a switch. Peterson is eligible for reinstatement on April 15, 2015. Most analysts suspect Peterson, with a cap hit of $15.4 million and approaching 30 years of age, will be released by the Vikings. But there are plenty of teams in the league that could use the services of a Hall of Fame caliber running back, so who’s going to take a chance on him?

The Need

Even as the league shifts to a pass-first focus, and even as running-back-by-committee approaches further minimize the need for a feature back, Peterson has proven over the years he can carry an offense, let alone a rushing attack. The following teams are all ranking in the bottom half of the league in both total rushing and average yards per carry this year:

  • Arizona Cardinals
  • San Diego Chargers
  • Detroit Lions
  • Oakland Raiders
  • NY Giants
  • Tampa Bay Buccaneers
  • Buffalo Bills
  • New England Patriots
  • Chicago Bears
  • Atlanta Falcons
  • San Francisco 49ers
  • Tennessee Titans
  • Denver Broncos

Let’s remove teams from this list that have had injury issues. Arizona, San Diego, New York, Buffalo, and Denver are all off the list. Teams with young players ready to step up include Tampa Bay (Charles Sims), San Francisco (Carlos Hyde), and Tennessee (Bishop Sankey). Chicago’s presence on that list is confusing because Matt Forte is one of the league’s best running backs. Let’s exclude them as well.

So now we’re down to Detroit, Oakland, New England, and Atlanta. Other teams with possible needs include Jacksonville (Toby Gerhardt has proven he’s not a feature back, and Denard Robinson isn’t likely to be more than a change-of-pace guy) and Indianapolis (the T-Rich trade was a disaster).

DET, OAK, NE, ATL, JAX, IND. Out of 32 teams in the league, maybe 6 will want to kick the tires.

The Cap Space

Peterson’s current contract would pay him over $47 million over the next 3 years. That said, he’s unlikely to sniff that kind of money for a pair of reasons. First, teams have to be wary of the PR backlash that may await them. Peterson is going to have to take a discount—at least for the short term—to prove that his skills still outweigh the distraction. Second, Peterson’s age makes him unlikely to land a lucrative, long-term contract. Anything over 3 years (not surprisingly, the same length remaining on his current contract) would either have to be well under market value or would represent significant risk for the team.

Detroit has enough cap space issues with Matthew Stafford, Ndamukong Suh, and Calvin Johnson. They’re likely out of the race. The Patriots are currently expected to have a mere $1.6 million in 2015 cap space. The remaining teams are all projected to have over $26 million in cap room. Though things can change dramatically over the course of the offseason, for now the list is down to four.

The Environment

As an “aging” player with little left to prove in terms of individual achievements, it’s likely that Peterson would value fit over finances, anyway.

Jacksonville could try to sell him on last year’s first round pick Blake Bortles taking a step forward in his second season, and the presence of an above-average defense on the other side of the ball. But the likelihood that Peterson would be interested in joining a team that is likely to be picking in the top-5 yet again seems low. Oakland faces much the same problem.

Both Indianapolis and Atlanta offer talented passing offenses that should be able to give Peterson ample running room. Atlanta has had a down year, but have otherwise been a perennially strong team with Matt Ryan under center. Indianapolis is again looking like the team to beat in the AFC South. The only question marks that linger are whether the Colts would feel comfortable making another big investment in a running back after the failed Trent Richardson experiment. Despite the two backs having no similarities on the field, it may still play into the front office’s decision-making. Atlanta currently has Stephen Jackson on the roster, who has been serviceable at the least, but he will be 32 by the start of the 2015-16 season and will be coming off of back-to-back sub-1000 yard seasons. The Falcons have a number of areas that need upgrading on defense, but their mindset tends to be Super Bowl or bust, and Peterson could be a key ingredient in their formula.

The Nuclear Option

Peterson has also said he may simply retire in light of his suspension. For a player with over 2,000 career carries over eight seasons, there is plenty of wear on his tires. Even if he can continue to play at an elite level for a few more years, there is certainly the long-term question of whether it is worth it. Peterson already has his money, so the only thing left for him would be to win a championship. But with the role of the running back somewhat marginalized in the NFL, that’s more a function of the team around him, and not his particular set of skills. So, aside from the bad taste retiring amidst this controversy might create, retirement might actually be the smartest play for Peterson. He’s already had one major injury in the form of an ACL tear (from which he bounced back masterfully), but why tempt fate with another injury that might have lasting consequences? Especially if he feels that the NFL has handled his situation unfairly—he has been quoted as saying “I have nothing but love for Ray Rice…But it’s like, how did Ray Rice get reinstated before me”—this might just be the right time to hang ’em up.

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