As we all know, the earliest Adrian Peterson can be reinstated into the NFL is April 15th. Whether that happens on that dates or not is still up in the air, but he will, at some point, be reinstated.
What happens after that?
Before we delve into this any further, let's be honest--no one knows. I don't, Fearless Leader doesn't know...heck, I bet it's safe to say that the Vikings and Adrian Peterson aren't even 100% sure yet. But there aren't a limitless set of options, either. Let's explore those options and see what they are.
Before we do that, though, let's ask two questions that will largely determine the outcome to this saga.
1) Does Adrian Peterson want to return to Minnesota?
That seems like a legitimate question. He hasn't said definitively that he does or doesn't, but he's hinted at factions within the organization (Vikings general counsel Kevin Warren) who actively worked to keep him out of the locker room and off the field in 2014. It seems incredulous that Warren, who works for the owners and not the NFL, would do this without the Wilfs knowing about it. I mean, I guess it's possible...but not realistic, it seems. Even though it appears that Mike Zimmer wants him back, and Rick Spielman isn't a reflexive 'no', and even tried to do a little image rehab for him the other day, Peterson could very well feel that he's not wanted by the team. If that's the case, would you want to come back if you were him?
2) Do The Vikings want him back?
Like I said, it appears Mike Zimmer wants him back, and his teammates have expressed their support for him. Spielman hasn't ruled out a return...but it's up to the Wilfs. Their actions have appeared to be one of indifference, and as Di mentioned on our podcast, a willingness to let the NFL handle this whole situation and let the league take the PR hit. But still, there's been no definitive 'we want AP back in a Vikings uniform' statement from the owners. I think the answer from the GM on down is yes, but at the end of the day, they're not the ones who make the decision. And in their defense, their job is to look at it from a pure football perspective, where the Wilfs look at the entire picture, rightly or wrongly.
So depending on what the answer to those two questions are will determine what the outcome is for Peterson. Let's look at the three possible scenarios, and discuss them.
1) Peterson is reinstated and returns, either on his current deal or a restructured one.
Right now, at least according to the good folks at Over The Cap, the Vikings are $16 million under the cap. The Vikings are one of the better cap managers in the NFL, they usually enter free agency with somewhere around $23-24 million to spend, and that gets them the players they want at the price they wan them at. If both parties agree to a return, the only real maneuver they would have to do to accommodate Peterson's salary (barring a restructuring) is to cut Chad Greenway. I just get the feeling Greenway's done, and cutting him would result in a cap savings of $7 million with only $1.7 million in dead money. Math is hard, I get that, but 16 + 7 = $23 million, which is right in Minnesota's wheelhouse for a working off season cap number, give or take.
Peterson's cap number is $13 million for 2015, far and away the highest on the team. Could he restructure? Sure, he could. If you made me answer today whether he would or not, I would say no, just kind of reading between the lines of what he's said regarding everything during this entire saga. But a restructure opens up even more cap space, which could approach or exceed $30 million, depending on what the final contract looks like.
2) Peterson is reinstated and is traded.
In his sit down with beat reporters the other day, Rick Spielman was doing his utmost to talk up AP, and we kind of pointed that out here. The one team that has been talked about a trade the most has been Dallas, because the Cowboys have both DeMarco Murray and Dez Bryant set to hit free agency, and they might not have the cash to re-sign both. If they can't, and they decide to let Murray go...the thought of trading AP to Dallas isn't as far fetched as it once was. If I had to rank order these into which one I personally think is going to happen, the trade option would be on the bottom.
But as the saying goes, all you need is one dance partner, and a healthy, pissed off, and motivated Adrian Peterson is something I think more than one team would think about. And finally, if AP is intent on leaving Minnesota, he may be willing to re-negotiate his deal to accommodate a new team, which would increase the chances of a trade. Minnesota would still be on the hook for the dead money ($2.4 million), but if the Vikings want him gone, getting rid of his cap number and getting players and/or picks for him would obviously be their top choice.
What would a trade get for him? I really have no idea. Could Spielman get a first round pick, or more? Tough to say. My inclination is to say no, but I never thought he'd get a first round pick for Percy Harvin, much less a first and a third. So anything is possible, I guess.
3) Peterson is reinstated and released.
A lot of people think this is what will be the eventual outcome. I'm not ready to jump in that camp yet, because he's still got a lot of trade value, in my opinion. If the Vikings can't get him traded, and they can afford him without re-structuring (which they can), I think the Vikings would risk the inevitable PR storm and bring him back...because I don't think the PR storm would be as bad as it was last September.
But yes, the simple thing would be to simply release him. There aren't a lot of running backs, save DeMarco Murray, that seem to be worth kicking the tires on in free agency, so the position would most certainly have to be addressed in the draft. But, assuming Greenway is cut, that $23 million in cap space jumps up another $13.4 million, to over $36 million. That's a chunk of cabbage that would allow the Vikings to outbid anyone for the services of the guys they want in free agency, and it would give them enough flexibility to address all of their needs before the draft, if they wanted to, and use the draft for some serious depth building up and down the roster.
On the surface, releasing Peterson seems appealing, but then you remember what a great running back he is, and how entertaining it could be watching him and Teddy Bridgewater in the same offense for a season or two. I understand both sides of this argument, from the 'get him off the team' crowd to the 'give him a second chance' crowd.
What happens at this point? I don't know. Either way, there's a decision coming on this this spring.
Whatever the Vikings do, I hope they don't flip a coin to decide, because they're kind of terrible at that, too.