Well, with the talk about what Rick Spielman had to say about Adrian Peterson yesterday, it seems to be as good a time as any to continue our look-ahead at 2015 by moving on to the running back position.
Of course, any discussion of the Minnesota Vikings' running back position begins and ends with Peterson and his status for 2015. . .a status which, as of now, seems to be completely up in the air and could be for some time. Peterson's appeal to the U.S. Circuit Court will be held in Minneapolis on 6 February and, if that appeal is unsuccessful, he will be on the shelf and not allowed to have any contact with the team until 15 April (at the earliest). Given that 15 April. . .a date that is completely arbitrary and, honestly, seems to have been selected to punish the Vikings as much as possible. . .falls well beyond the start of the free agency period and just before the 2015 NFL Draft, it could potentially limit what the Vikings can do.
Then again, they don't necessarily have to do anything.
We know that Peterson has a $15.4 million cap figure for the 2015 season, a figure that puts him well ahead of every other running back in the NFL. With a projected salary cap of around $140 million for 2015, the Vikings currently look to be $10 to $11 million under the salary cap with Peterson's salary on the books. They could easily clear up another $10 to $15 million of space by restructuring deals or cutting players. On the low end, if the Vikings chose to pay Peterson and keep him on the team, they would still probably have around $20 million in cap space to fill a couple of spots with prior to the draft.
The flip side of that is that if the team decided to cut Peterson, they'd probably have somewhere between $35 and $40 million in cap space. . .then again, that would only really do them any good if they pulled the trigger on such a move before free agency got underway, lest all the top players at positions of need for the Vikings get scooped up before they have a chance to do anything. I know the mere mention of the Vikings possibly ending their relationship with Peterson will immediately bring forth cries of "EHRMEHGERD DERN'T CURT PEHTERSERHN," but let's be honest. There was a chance that 2014 was going to be Adrian Peterson's last season in Minnesota before everything that happened starting in September. We knew this, and discussed it on this very website last off-season, too.
And Peterson could end up forcing the team's hand. Peterson said he knew that there were elements in the Vikings' power structure that were working to keep him off of the field in 2014. . .one element specifically, later identified as Chief Counsel Kevin Warren. However, as I said in the piece I was part of over at Kick Ass Blog, one guy isn't going to go rogue and pull something like this without, at the very least, a wink and a nod from the people at the top. This isn't 24, Adrian Peterson is not Jack Bauer, and Kevin Warren is not the mole. He knew what he was doing, and more importantly, someone above him on the chain knew. . .and approved. . .what he was doing. And if someone was, in fact, actively trying to keep Peterson off of the field in 2014, he no doubt knows about it. If that's the case, he could very easily decide that he doesn't want anything to do with the Vikings and force the team's hand via a trade or a release.
It's the biggest question of the off-season, and it could go any number of directions. . .and there's a very good chance that we won't know which direction it will take until three months from today. But, regardless of whether or not Peterson comes back, there's one important thing to remember.
This is no longer "Adrian Peterson's team." And it will never again be "Adrian Peterson's team." As of 28 September of this past year, this football team belongs to one Theodore Edmond Bridgewater II. And it should be Teddy Bridgewater's team. It needs to be Teddy Bridgewater's team. Because even if Peterson does come back, he's much closer to the end of his career than he is to the beginning, while Bridgewater appears to be on the road to a long and productive NFL career. If Peterson comes back, he will be a piece of the Minnesota Vikings, but there's a very good chance that he will no longer be the centerpiece. . .and, frankly, he shouldn't be. Some folks might be unwilling or unable to accept this, though I would hope that isn't the case.
Because of Peterson's absence, the Vikings had a two-headed running back situation for much of the season, and it was comprised of Matt Asiata and rookie Jerick McKinnon. McKinnon missed the team's final five games of the year after a back injury that he suffered while lifting weights, and still led the team in rushing yardage until Asiata passed him in the final week of the season. McKinnon averaged nearly five yards per carry, while the only two backs in the entire NFL that had more rushing touchdowns than Asiata were a couple of guys named DeMarco Murray and Marshawn Lynch.
When the Vikings drafted McKinnon, they clearly envisioned him as a "change of pace" type of back as opposed to a feature guy. If Peterson returns, that's the role McKinnon will fill, but I think there's a chance that he could, in fact, be the top guy in the event that Peterson isn't back. He's about as freakish an athlete as you'll find at the running back position, and his injury didn't come from anything that happened on the football field, and he's made the transition from college option quarterback to NFL running back about as smoothly as anyone could have hoped.
The future of Asiata, a restricted free agent, is a little more murky. He's a restricted free agent, and he's shown himself to be a very competent short-yardage option, particularly near the goal line. He also, generally, has better hands than you'd probably think. He even wound up second on the team in receptions this past year, with his 44 catches trailing only Greg Jennings' 59. Is there a spot for him if Peterson comes back? Even if he doesn't, will the Vikings think that they can do better somewhere else?
The Vikings also have Joe Banyard, who looked pretty good in the limited opportunities he received. He's a guy that's hung around for a couple of seasons, and may get squeezed out in the numbers game at the position. The team also has Dominique Williams on the practice squad, and that might be all the farther he gets with the Vikings. An interesting name to keep an eye on might be Henry Josey, who was brought in at the end of the season and, if he's recovered from the awful knee injury he suffered in college, could find himself in the mix for a roster spot as well.
The free agent market at the position doesn't have a whole lot going for it, outside of a couple guys. Yes, DeMarco Murray is going to be available, and he may have been the best running back in the league this season. However, the Cowboys also gave him a whopping 497 touches this season (449 in the regular season and 48 more in the post-season). You know, it's almost like they figured they could run him into the ground this season because they weren't expecting him back next year. Not many guys have a great follow-up to a season where they get that many carries. I say let someone else take a chance on Murray falling into that category.
Justin Forsett is the next-best guy on the list, and he ran for twice as many yards in 2014 as he had run for in any season prior. Not sure that would be the way to go. Some of the other "big names" on the list include Ryan Mathews (who seemingly can't go fifteen minutes without suffering a season-ending injury) and Mark Ingram (who has the unfortunate affliction of being Mark Ingram). Shane Vereen and Frank Gore are there too, I suppose. Like I said, not a whole lot in the way of excitement in the free agent running back market.
I also don't think that, in the event that Peterson doesn't return, this team needs to spend a high pick on a running back. Sure, a guy like a Melvin Gordon might be tempting, but there's certainly no reason for this team to take him at #11 with the other needs they have. He could be a guy that gets targeted for one of Rick Spielman's increasingly patented late first round trade-ups, but even that would surprise me.
If the team feels that they need a running back in the draft, there will be plenty of talent in the middle rounds to keep an eye on. Some of those that the Vikings could potentially get in Rounds 3 to 5 are Tevin Coleman out of Indiana, Minnesota's own David Cobb, Jay Ajayi of Boise State, and Javorius Allen of Southern Cal. On a Vikings' team without Peterson, a player of that sort would be able to fit in as part of the rotation with McKinnon and Asiata and help carry the load in the backfield for the Vikings.
So, that's one man's opinion and look ahead at the Minnesota Vikings' running back situation for the 2015 season. We'll continue moving through the roster over the course of the next couple of weeks.