The Minnesota Vikings have running back Adrian Peterson, 26, under contract for $10.7 million in 2011, but Peterson will be a free agent in 2012. After rushing for 5,782 yards and 52 touchdowns in the first four years of his career, he will be expensive to sign to a long-term deal, and recent history shows he will likely end up not being worth the cost of a long-term deal due to the toll the 1,198 carries he has already amassed will take on his body.
Washington Redskins running back Clinton Portis started his career on a statistically similar note to Peterson, rushing for 5,930 yards on 1,258 carries in his first four years in the NFL. After rushing for over 1,500 yards in three of those four seasons, Portis never reached that milestone again and played less than half of a season three of the last five years due to injuries.
Free agent running back Larry Johnson is another example of why the Vikings need to hesitate before signing Peterson to a huge contract extension. After being used sparingly in the first two seasons of his career in the NFL, Johnson emerged as the Kansas City Chiefs’ featured offensive weapon by rushing for 3,539 yards and 37 touchdowns on 752 carries in 2005 and 2006 combined. The Chiefs rewarded Johnson with a new six-year contract worth $45 million in the 2007 offseason, but Johnson had already peaked and never rushed for over 1,000 yards or played a full season again.
Former Pittsburgh Steeler running back Willie Parker’s career took a comparable nosedive after his fourth season in the league as well. Parker earned the Steelers’ starting running back job in 2005, his second year in the league, and rushed for 1,202 yards. The Steelers signed Parker to a four-year contract the following offseason, and he gained over 1,300 yards each of the next two seasons. The next two seasons, Parker rushed for under 1,000 yards and the Steelers chose not to re-sign him. Parker is currently a free agent and did not play in the NFL last year.
Portis, Johnson and Parker are merely three examples of a league-wide trend: elite running backs’ shelf lives are dramatically shorter than any other NFL position’s. The violent running style that makes Peterson so deadly now is what will accelerate his deterioration. He hasn’t had an injury-fee season since his freshman year in college and it is only a matter of another year or two before Peterson is just another washed-up running back whose production no longer matches his salary. While I’ve previously argued that the Titans need to sign running back Chris Johnson to a large contract extension, the two players’ situations are completely different and the Vikings are in no such need to spend a large amount of money on a running back. Johnson has a much cleaner bill of health than Peterson, and often runs out of bounds and avoids hits. For this reason, Johnson’s prime is likely to last longer than Peterson’s. Additionally, with wide receiver Kenny Britt likely to face a suspension to start the season, the Titans need Johnson more than the Vikings need Peterson.
By drafting Toby Gerhart and Percy Harvin the last two years, the Vikings put themselves in position to move on without Peterson, and will not suffer a drastic loss of production in the running game if they trade him. Gerhart was drafted for his ability to get his pads low and bounce off of defenders, and the Vikings can create matchup advantages by splitting Harvin’s playing time between the positions of running back and receiver like the Florida Gators did when he played for them in college. With Gerhart at running back, Sidney Rice and Visanthe Shiancoe catching passes, and Harvin moving all over the field to confuse defenses, the Vikings would have more than enough skill position players to survive without Peterson in the backfield.
Although Peterson is undoubtedly the Vikings’ best player, his value is at its peak right now and the Vikings must pull the trigger on a trade this year to get the maximum compensation they can for him. When the lockout ends, the Vikings should approach Peterson’s impending free agency the same way the NBA’s Denver Nuggets handled forward Carmelo Anthony in the 2010-11 season. Anthony ‘s contract was set to expire at the end of the season, so instead of letting him hit free agency, the Nuggets traded him to the New York Knicks right before the NBA’s trade deadline. The Vikings should follow a similar approach and take their time this offseason as they wait to receive an advantageous deal for Peterson. If the Vikings make it known that Peterson is on the trading block, some team convinced it is only a running back away from a Super Bowl will offer a treasure trove of draft picks for Peterson at some point before the Week Six trade deadline.
Finding a willing trade partner should not even be difficult. Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer has a few good years left in the tank, but has stated adamantly he will retire if the Bengals do not trade him. Trading away Palmer and enough draft ammunition to convince the Vikings to send Peterson to Cincinnati would allow the Bengals to get value for their malcontent quarterback and dramatically bolster their running game to take the workload off rookie quarterback Andy Dalton’s shoulders. Obtaining Palmer would fill the Vikings’ biggest hole while first-round draft pick Christian Ponder develops into a starting-caliber quarterback, and would give the Vikings draft picks to fill more of the holes in their roster next offseason.
Trading Peterson would be an unpopular move among Vikings fans, but the right decision is rarely ever the popular one. For the Vikings to get back to playing January football as quickly as possible, they must follow the roster-building examples of the most successful teams in the NFL. Organizations such as the Patriots, Colts and Ravens have consistently fielded competitive teams throughout the past decade by amassing enough draft picks each year to move around and slect the players they want to obtain in order to build through the draft. Such a strategy allows teams to replace departed homegrown free agents with cheaper, younger players of a similar caliber.
On the lowest section of the NFL totem pole, teams like the Redskins, Raiders and Lions dug themselves deeper and deeper into annual December irrelevance by overpaying their own free agents and trading away too many of their draft picks to develop a solid core of young players. The key ingredient in the recipe for NFL success is an abundance of draft picks. For the Vikings to accelerate their rebuilding efforts, their top priority needs to be dealing Peterson for maximum value when the lockout is over.
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Hank Koebler is an NFL / NCAA Football Writer and On-Air Personality. Hank's work as a journalist has been widely published and he's received numerous citations for his NFL coverage. You may email Hank @ firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @HankKoebler