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Closing door on Adrian Peterson could open another to something better

On his 14th touch as an NFL player, a 22-year-old Adrian Peterson scored the first of his 102 professional touchdowns.

It was a screen pass from Tarvaris Jackson midway through the fourth quarter of a tight game with the Atlanta Falcons at the Metrodome on Sept. 9, 2007.

It was a simple, yet perfect play call by coach Brad Childress and offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell. The Vikings led 10-3 and Peterson, the rookie first-round draft pick, was chewing up close to 6 yards per carry. Atlanta defenders were playing the run, so why not put Peterson out in space and throw him the ball?

The result was a blazing, zig-zagging 60-yard touchdown reception that clinched what became a 24-3 Vikings victory. Peterson threw in 103 yards rushing on 19 carries (5.4) and a 22-yard kickoff return in his regular-season debut.

Since that touchdown, Peterson has touched the ball another 2,645 times with only four more receiving touchdowns and 240 receptions over a 10-year career.

That’s not to say Peterson hasn’t had a great career that should be celebrated for its strengths as a classic runner. It’s a Hall of Fame career that will continue beyond Peterson’s 32nd birthday on March 21.

But closing the door on Peterson also could open another door to something  better for the Vikings at this point. Someone younger, more versatile, more durable, more modern in a league that continues to evolve in favor of a passing game.

Sorry, AP. It’s the circle of life in the NFL, and no one is immune. In fact, I can remember people wondering in 2007 why the Vikings would take an injury-prone kid from Oklahoma seventh overall when a 27-year-old Chester Taylor had just run for 1,216 yards in 2006.

The Vikings haven’t closed the door on Peterson just yet. They won’t pay him the $18 million for the final year of his current contract, but they are entertaining his return under a team-friendly price tag.

General Manager Rick Spielman does like the talent and depth of the running backs in this year’s draft class. So it’s not a stretch to assume the Vikings will or have offered Peterson a price he won’t accept, which would make him a free agent for the first time in his career.

Just looking at the two Super Bowl teams — Atlanta and New England — shows the kind of versatile running backs who probably would fit better in a pass-oriented scheme that coordinator Pat Shurmur will be designing around quarterback Sam Bradford. In the Super Bowl, Atlanta’s Devonta Freeman averaged 6.8 yards on 11 carries and 23 yards on two receptions, while New England’s James White, came essentially out of nowhere to set a Super Bowl record for catches (14) while tying another record with three touchdowns (two rushing, one receiving).

Draft experts seem to agree that the 2017 running back class will be a memorable one. That’s saying something considering what Todd Gurley did in 2015 and how Ezekiel Elliott one-upped him a year later.

Without a first-round draft pick, two backs the Vikings won’t get a swing at are Leonard Fournette of LSU and Dalvin Cook of Florida State. And they could be joined by two or three more backs in the first round, according to some experts.

Here are six backs the Vikings could be considering in the second, third and fourth rounds:

Alvin Kamara, Tennessee, 5-10, 215: Good size, strength, hands and experience in the passing game as a slot guy and adequate pass protector.  Had discipline issues at Alabama before leaving and spending at year at Hutchinson Community College. has him going in the second round, 56th overall, about 10 spots below where the Vikings will select, pending a coin flip for positioning.

D’Onta Foreman, Texas, 6-1, 249: One of the country’s most productive backs last year with 2,028 yards, a 6.3 average and 15 touchdowns. But he doesn’t bring as much to the passing game. The Vikings do, however, value Jerick McKinnon as a third-down back with good hands. He can fill that role. But, still, it would be nice to have a primary back who’s unpredictable in Shurmur’s offense. Foreman is projected to go in the second or third round.

Curtis Samuel, Ohio State, 5-11, 197: This is the back that really intrigues me. To me, he looks like he could be a bigger version of Percy Harvin as a hybrid running back/receiver. He might go as high as the second or, who knows, the first round. But if he’s still around later in the draft, I can see him fitting this offense because he has a variety of skills to match the running and passing games.

Wayne Gallman, Clemson, 6-0, 210: has the Vikings taking Gallman in the fourth round. The son of a Marine, he’s considered a tough, disciplined player. He ran for 1,527 yards two years ago and 1,002 and 15 touchdowns on fewer carries last year. He’s known as a strong short-yardage force, which would help an offensive line in transition. Can he pass protect and add to the passing game is the question.

Jamaal Williams, BYU, 6-0, 211: A back the Vikings are believed to have interest in. He had a knee injury and a team suspension two years ago. He withdrew from school in 2015. Last year, he ran for 1,375 yards and 12 touchdowns despite missing three games.

Joe Mixon, Oklahoma, 6-1, 226: Yes, he’s a character risk. And the Vikings might have already removed him from draft board because of that. He punched a female student in the face in 2014. So he comes with some uncomfortable domestic baggage for a team that experienced its share of that and more with Peterson in 2014. But’s Mike Mayock has Mixon as his fifth-highest back. What if Mixon tumbles through the draft and is sitting there at great value in the later rounds?

The Vikings can quickly add up salary cap space ahead of free agency

This is the time of year when players become budget lines again as front offices assess and reassess the dollar values assigned to many players in breakable contracts.

The Vikings gained about $5 million against next year’s salary cap with last week’s release of Brandon Fusco and Mike Harris, beginning needed rebuilding efforts along the offensive line. But the major moves that could more than double the Vikings’ projected $21.4 million in space, per, have yet to come.

Should the Vikings exercise an option, Adrian Peterson would earn nearly $10 million more than any running back in the NFL is set to make next season. That’s not expected to happen and, with Peterson already tweeting about the Giants, the Vikings could gain $18 million in cap space if the option is declined or not picked up by the end of March 8. The next day, Sharrif Floyd’s salary becomes guaranteed if he and a $6.7 million fifth-year option aren’t declined by the team before then.

Moving on from Peterson and Floyd, who missed a combined 28 games last season, would put the Vikings around $46 million in cap space with the potential to create more from a couple corners of the roster.

Much of that could go quickly given General Manager Rick Spielman’s propensity to re-sign his own free agents. The Vikings have 14 unrestricted free agents and its not a lock who will or won’t return. The most costly contracts are expected to be Captain Munnerlyn and Cordarrelle Patterson, who both could leave in free agency.

The Vikings have made calculated, low-risk moves for veterans on the open market under Spielman. They’ve opted more for the bargain-bin signings and prove-it contracts than the big-money deals, saving those for drafted players like Everson Griffen and Harrison Smith. Another one of those deals will likely be coming to Xavier Rhodes this summer.

Linval Joseph’s $12.5 million was the most an outside hire has been guaranteed by the Vikings under Spielman and head coach Mike Zimmer. Will that change with glaring needs along the offensive line? More was needed to lure last year’s top O-line free agents in Cordy Glenn, Mitchell Schwartz, Kelechi Osemele and Alex Mack.

Just to estimate, the Vikings could have about $20 million to $25 million in space after setting aside portions for the rookie class ($6 million) and restricted/exclusive rights free agents ($4 million), increasing Rhodes’ cap hit by $5 million and re-signing Matt Kalil ($5 million) and others to smaller deals like Audie Cole, Jeff Locke, Zach Line and Justin Trattou.

The Vikings could use some of that space to, let’s say, bulk up Adam Thielen’s contract after placing a tender on the restricted free agent. Or Sam Bradford’s deal could draw attention with only one season left under contract, a solid (and healthy) year behind him and Teddy Bridgewater’s playing future uncertain.

Soaring to the top of the priority list is the offensive line, which needs addressing ahead of what is expected to be a mediocre draft class for tackles — where the Vikings saw seven different players take snaps last season with three on injured reserve. Even if Kalil returns, they can’t again bank on his health.

The needs start stacking up as does the 2017 salary cap, which is reportedly expected to jump to $168 million. So whether the Vikings pursue an expensive tackle or guard like pending free agents Rick Wagner (Baltimore) or Kevin Zeitler (Cincinnati), they’ll have the ability to create cap room if they really want him.

Final, 2/5 1 2 3 4 OT F
New England 0 3 6 19 6 34
Atlanta 0 21 7 0 0 28

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