Adrian Peterson’s 32nd birthday is a month away, but by the time March 21 arrives, it’s likely that he won’t be a member of the Minnesota Vikings anymore.
The Vikings had until March 11 to decide whether the team wants to keep its 2007 first-round pick by picking up the option on his contract and taking on a $18 million cap hit in 2017.
But choosing whether Peterson is worth $18 million for a single season was an easy one.
The team didn’t pick up his option and he’s now days away from becoming a free agent. Peterson has expressed a desire to stay in Minnesota and the Vikings have promised to do their due diligence, but the only scenario that will keep the running back in purple is a new deal that pays him significantly less.
The question is just how significant.
After 11,747 rushing yards, 97 rushing touchdowns, seven Pro Bowls, and an NFL MVP Award, there’s certainly a level of respect that Peterson has earned. And with potential suitors knocking at the door, any kind of lowball offer will likely send Peterson packing.
The wheels may have come off
Peterson suffered a meniscus tear in Week 2 of the 2016 season that caused him to miss almost the entire year. He returned for just one game in December, before more injuries caused him to miss the final two weeks.
Altogether, he appeared in just three games and tallied only 72 rushing yards on 37 attempts. Missing most of a season due to injuries doesn’t necessarily mean a player is over the hill, but it certainly doesn’t help their case.
Production for running backs typically falls off a cliff at age-30 and Peterson already defied Father Time by rushing for 1,485 yards and 11 touchdowns after his 30th birthday in 2015. But at age 32, the odds are stacked even higher against Peterson being productive.
Only 12 times in NFL history has a player 32 or older rushed for at least 1,000 yards. Frank Gore became only the second player in the last decade to accomplish the feat when he rushed for 1,025 yards for the Indianapolis Colts in 2016.
But Gore, Ricky Williams, Mike Anderson, and others who reached the mark at age-32 or older didn’t have the wear and tear of multiple knee injuries over the course of their career like Peterson does.
And the few times he was on the field in 2016 were underwhelming.
The porous Vikings offensive line did him no favors, but Peterson struggled to create on his own like he had done consistently during his prolific career.
The Vikings have other things to take care of
Minnesota finished dead last in rushing yards and yards per attempt, but keeping Peterson around isn’t the solution. The team’s poor offensive line also kept Jerick McKinnon and Matt Asiata bottled up to 3.4 yards and 3.3 per attempt, respectively.
Fixing that problem will be tough for the Vikings after the team traded away a first-round pick for Sam Bradford who is due to count $18 million against Minnesota’s salary cap in 2017.
The Vikings aren’t exactly strapped for cash, but the team is near the bottom of the NFL in cap space and can very much use the extra room that would come with parting ways with Peterson.
“Obviously, we have to address the offensive line," Vikings general manager Rick Spielman said on Sirius XM Radio in January. "But I think we have a lot of young pieces in place. We built a very strong nucleus and they are all right now at the prime of their career, we just have to address some of the needs, like every other team does."
It doesn’t make much sense for a team that is focused on upgrading the trenches to spend big on a running back who doesn’t have much gas left in the tank. The likeliest strategy for the Vikings is to offer Peterson a contract that is cheap and short, allowing the team to move on from the running back after 2017 or 2018.
Other teams will likely be willing to offer more
It doesn’t make much sense for the Vikings to make a significant effort to keep Peterson, but it could be a logical move for another team.
With young players like Ezekiel Elliott, Paul Perkins, and Lamar Miller in place in some of those offenses, Peterson could be added as a complementary back on an offense that emphasizes the run. The Cowboys, Texans, and Buccaneers all finished in the top eight of the NFL in rushing attempts.
None are going to be willing to give Peterson a blockbuster deal, but the possibility of teams competing for the running back’s services will push the price tag up and likely out of a range the Vikings can feel comfortable with.
While staying in Minnesota doesn’t seem like a move that would be mutually beneficial, there’s always the chance that Peterson will accept less than market value to finish his career with the only team he has ever played for.
"I've been there for 10 years plus,” Peterson told the NFL Network earlier in February. “You think about all the relationships you build there, with the organizations with teammates. That's what you hate to depart from the most."
But for now it seems the only way Peterson stays with the Vikings is if the team offers more than they should, or the running back accepts less than he should.