The Adrian Peterson saga won’t be over until the most productive running back of this era squeezes his shiny, bald head into a football helmet and runs out onto an NFL practice field for the first time since last September. Whether that helmet will be purple or of another color remains to be seen, but a resolution appears to finally be close.
In the next few days — perhaps on Wednesday, the league’s long-targeted reinstatement date — the NFL might welcome Peterson back from his self-inflicted seven-month exile. And within a few weeks, it should be known whether he will resume his Hall of Fame-caliber career with the Vikings or start a new chapter elsewhere.
Given the circumstances that led to his suspension, the lingering animosity between Peterson and the franchise that drafted him seventh overall in 2007, the caliber of the player, the value of his contract and the track record of his most formidable future opponent — Father Time — this standoff has been unlike any other in NFL history.
Since the offseason started, the Vikings have said, more and more adamantly as time has passed, that they intend to begin the 2015 season with Peterson standing in the backfield behind young quarterback and future franchise face Teddy Bridgewater.
“I think it’s been very clearly stated that we want to have Adrian Peterson back,” General Manager Rick Spielman reiterated yet again in March. “There’s no question about the talent. He’s a unique talent and he’s under contract with us next year.”
But as the NFL draft nears, the trade chatter may become deafening, and perhaps a team will tempt the Vikings with an offer lucrative enough to change their minds.
One way or another, though, the situation should come to a head by the time the lights go out on the NFL draft on May 2.
Still a Viking
While publicly saying that they will welcome Peterson back, the Vikings have been patiently waiting for the NFL and Commissioner Roger Goodell to actually give them the opportunity. Peterson has been shuffled from the commissioner’s exempt list to the suspended list and back, but he will be eligible for reinstatement on Wednesday.
Before making a decision regarding Peterson’s reinstatement, Goodell wanted to meet face-to-face with Peterson for the first time since the running back was charged with abusing his young son in September and pleaded no contest to misdemeanor reckless assault in November. So Goodell summoned him to the league’s offices in New York for a meeting Tuesday that lasted over three hours.
The NFL has announced no official ruling regarding his status since then. But unless Goodell feels that Peterson has not met the terms of his suspension, which included the requirement that he speak with a league-assigned psychiatrist to design a counseling and therapy program, the expectation is that Peterson will be reinstated.
If he is, Peterson can then officially return to the Vikings for the first time since September.
His agent, Ben Dogra, recently said he thinks Peterson would be better off playing elsewhere. It is not known whether Peterson has formally demanded a trade. If he has, the Vikings have no obligation — and seemingly no desire — to grant that request.
“I’m not going to speculate on what he wants or doesn’t want. Adrian’s under contract for three more years with us, and that’s why you sign those contracts. That’s why you get these big bonuses, you know?” head coach Mike Zimmer said at last month’s NFL owners meetings, later adding emphatically, “We have no plans to trade Adrian.”
For starters, it would set a bad precedent to allow a star player and team leader to force his way out of town. Just as important, the Vikings, coming off a 7-9 season, believe the perennial Pro Bowl player still has at least one more productive year in him. And they believe that with a strong running game, they could be playoff contenders in 2015.
“I don’t think the Minnesota Vikings are going to make that trade,” said former Tampa Bay Buccaneers General Manager Mark Dominik, now an NFL analyst for ESPN. “The way the league is now, every team has a win-now mentality.”
Herschel Era is over
But if the Vikings are bluffing — which Dominik said could improve Peterson’s potential trade value, as opposed to saying that he is on the trade block — there is no better time than the draft to trade him away, according to former NFL agent Joel Corry, who writes about the business of football for CBS Sports.
“It would probably happen while on the clock because that’s when you might get a team that’s willing to give up more than they would previously,” Corry said. “You’d think [the Vikings] would want a 2015 draft pick, so if you’re going to see something get done, talks will heat up close to the draft or he will be traded during the draft.”
So who might be interested in trading for Peterson? The Dallas Cowboys — who just lost their own Pro Bowl running back, Demarco Murray, in free agency — and the Arizona Cardinals are two teams most commonly mentioned in reported trade rumors.
And what might his value be? Dominik believes that Peterson, even at age 30, is worth a first-round pick and a pair of second-rounders, but he doubts a team would be willing to up the ante that high. Both Corry and former Cleveland Browns GM Phil Savage said a second-round pick would be a more reasonable haul.
A decade or more ago, NFL teams would have jumped at the chance to trade a bunch of picks for one of the leading rushers in NFL history, like the Vikings did when acquiring Herschel Walker from Dallas in 1989. But the position has been devalued in recent years, and Peterson is a 30-year-old back who is owed $45 million over the next three seasons.
“It’s kind of a buyer-beware proposition for Peterson going forward,” Corry said. “But if there’s a running back that is going to defy odds, he’s it.”
Force his way out?
Still, the expectation is that the draft, which begins April 30, will come and go without Peterson being traded.
Peterson trade conspiracy theorists point to Spielman’s trading of wide receiver Percy Harvin two years ago after he said he wouldn’t. But that deal, which netted the Vikings a first-, a third- and seventh-round pick, was a brilliant football deal that the Seattle Seahawks, who traded Harvin away for a late pick last fall, wish they could have back.
It seems unlikely the Vikings will get a similarly lucrative offer, the kind that will convince them to send one of the greatest players in franchise history packing.
The question then would become whether Peterson reports to Winter Park for the team’s offseason workout program. The program is voluntary until the mandatory minicamp in June, the first time Peterson would be contractually obligated to show. In his occasional conversations with national media, he has not said whether he would hold out if it came down to it. But if he were to decide to dig his heels in and skip training camp, he could be fined $30,000 a day per the collective bargaining agreement.
If Peterson truly does want out, as his agent has suggested, would the cost be worth it?
Corry pointed to former NFL wide receivers Keyshawn Johnson and Terrell Owens as standout players who were disruptive enough to force their way out of one NFL city and into another. In both cases, interestingly, it was the Cowboys who paid them next.
“If you are a distraction, you can sometimes get what you want and a team will move you to eliminate that distraction,” Corry said.
Of course, money is usually the quickest way for a team to eliminate any uneasiness a disgruntled player is feeling. While Peterson’s salary cap hits continue to escalate over the life of his contract, there is no guaranteed money beyond this season. Perhaps Peterson and the Vikings could find a compromise by redoing his current deal to reduce future cap hits for the Vikings while giving Peterson guaranteed money and peace of mind beyond this season.
If not, the Vikings could find themselves back in a similar spot again next offseason.
First things first, the Vikings must finish navigating the present situation, one of the NFL’s trickiest in recent memory.
It seems likely the helmet that Peterson eventually tugs on next will still belong to the Vikings. We still don’t know that for sure, but we finally should soon.