The Vikings had concluded a three-game preseason schedule during which Patrick Peterson did not play a snap, and the eight-time Pro Bowl cornerback was talking with Karl Scott, the Vikings' new defensive backs coach just five years his senior.
"He was like, 'I don't give a sugar honey iced tea what PFF [Pro Football Focus] says about you. Just go be you,'" Peterson recalled. "When a coach gives you that confidence, gives you that green light, for me, especially, the sky's the limit."
Age might be just a number, but Peterson is at the point of his career where it's a number (31 years and 61 days, for the record) that seems hard to escape. It's brought up by analytics sites trying to quantify whether his speed and effectiveness are still the same as when he made eight straight Pro Bowls in Arizona, by front offices trying to place a proper valuation on his next contract, by reporters asking questions about how much he's got left and by teammates who tell him about how they watched his highlights when they were in middle school.
"They always make me feel older than what I really am," Peterson said. "I'm like, 'Man, don't bring up the years you watched my highlights!"
The refuge, he hopes, will be in Minnesota, where he signed a one-year deal with a team that thought it had no chance to afford him, to play for a head coach who first made an impression on Peterson during a pre-draft visit a decade ago.
He is back in the purple and gold he wore at LSU, having jumped at the NFL's relaxed jersey number rules to grab the old No. 7 he starred in while his new teammates were watching clips of his interceptions and punt returns on their first smartphones. He weighs less than 200 pounds for the first time in his playing career, following an offseason in which he worked harder than he ever had to prove he's the same player he always was.
“As odd as this may sound, going into Year 11, I feel like I'm still in Year 3. I'm out there never tired, not stressed, always relaxed, in a position where I need to be. I feel like I have another five left in me, but only my body will be able to tell that story once those years come.”
Peterson's agent, Joel Segal, reached out to the Vikings early in free agency to let them know the cornerback was interested in playing for Mike Zimmer, hoping to do in his 30s what players like Deion Sanders, Adam Jones and Terence Newman did under the coach.
The Vikings signed him to a one-year, $8 million deal that includes an additional $2 million of incentives; the contract came with the hope Peterson can rebound after two subpar years in Arizona, as well as a tacit expectation he'll share his wisdom with a young group of corners. So far, coaches say, he's been as advertised in both areas.
"You might look at him as a guy that you can't coach. 'He's good enough, he knows what to do, just put him out there.' But it's totally the opposite of that," Scott said. "Pat wants to know, he wants to be critiqued, he wants to know what he's doing wrong or what he can improve on, and not only that, but when you give it to him, he's willing to apply it on the field."
Vikings in mind
Peterson made eight Pro Bowls and earned three All-Pro selections in his first eight seasons with the Cardinals. He didn't miss a game in that time. He was named to the All-Decade team for the 2010s, and he established himself as one of the league's best cover corners in the first act of a career that seemed likely to stay in Arizona before landing him in Canton.
But the NFL has a way of ushering even its brightest stars toward the exits, and Peterson's final two years in Arizona turned him from a franchise cornerstone at age 29 to a free agent at age 31.
The first — and to date, only — missed games of his career came in 2019, when the NFL suspended him six games for violating the league's performance-enhancing drug policy and using a masking agent to try to cover up the result.
After Bruce Arians retired and defensive coordinator James Bettcher was let go after the 2018 season, the Cardinals' new staff pulled back on the press-man coverage Peterson had played most of his career, asking him to run across formations with receivers without giving him as much freedom to jam them at the line (Pro Football Focus, such that Scott cares about it, had Peterson playing more man coverage snaps than any corner in the league in 2020, while allowing a 109.9 passer rating).
"I know how to press, and I'm good at it," he said. "But if a coach tells me he doesn't want me to do a certain thing anymore, and he wants me to do it this way, I'm going to try to implement that. At the same time, if that don't work for me, you've got to let me do what works for me, and that wasn't the case."
His play in coverage slipped in 2019 and 2020, and by March, Peterson was rendered expendable by the team that had counted on him his whole career. When he sorted through his options this offseason, he kept coming back to a meeting with Zimmer before the 2011 draft.
The Bengals held the fourth pick and were considering Peterson. They brought him to Cincinnati for a visit; Zimmer, then the defensive coordinator, met with Peterson in his office, and the two "just talked ball," Peterson said.
"We talked about his philosophy, how he liked his corners — big, fast, physical, that can play man-to-man with glue-like coverage," Peterson added. "Speaking with him at the time, I was like, 'This is my type of guy.'"
Vance Joseph, Peterson's last defensive coordinator in Arizona, had worked for Zimmer in Cincinnati, meaning some of the Vikings' coverage principles would likely be similar for Peterson as he started over. The cornerback saw a defense with "nothing but playmakers on paper," now that Danielle Hunter, Michael Pierce and Anthony Barr would be back.
He decided to leave the desert for the Land of 10,000 Lakes, where, he says, "I took a sip of that water of the fountain of youth."
Peterson and his wife, Antonique, sold their house in Arizona and moved to the Twin Cities, where he drives a purple Polaris Slingshot roadster to practice while the weather's nice. He said he's been refreshed by a coaching staff that gives him the latitude to press receivers; Zimmer, he said, has suggested some different techniques so opponents can't always pick up on what he's doing, but the Vikings otherwise are "allowing me to be Patrick 'P2' Peterson, and I know how to do that very well," he said.
Said Zimmer, "My philosophy's always been, that player knows the player he's up against better than I do."
Peterson has been working on a motor technique, or softer style of pressing, but still looks as good as ever when he's up in a receiver's face, according to Zimmer, who also said he has seen enough speed from the 31-year-old in practice.
'Trying to get better'
Justin Jefferson has known Peterson since he was 9, when his older brother Jordan played with Peterson at LSU. Peterson used to come by the Jeffersons' house for some of the family's famously competitive pickup basketball. Both Justin and Jordan Jefferson have spent time with the Petersons at their house in Minnesota during training camp.
It's still "very, very weird" for Jefferson to line up across from Peterson as a teammate, he said. Once he put that aside, he realized a player he used to idolize could be an invaluable resource as a peer.
"Seeing what things that he uses against me to see when I be able to break or whenever I come out of my routes," Jefferson said, "to hear his answer and to give me feedback on what I should and should not do, it's very, very good to have a veteran cornerback."
Peterson's incisive questions, Scott said, make him a better coach. After a year spent teaching young defensive backs without a preseason, Zimmer has seemed almost giddy to work with veterans who quickly identify routes based on how a receiver is aligned or how he releases. The advice trickles down to younger players, too.
“You might look at him as a guy that you can't coach. 'He's good enough, he knows what to do, just put him out there.' But it's totally the opposite of that. Pat wants to know, he wants to be critiqued, he wants to know what he's doing wrong or what he can improve on.”
Peterson's offseason work with his trainer, Rod Hood, has him believing he can stay in the league well into the 2020s. His quick-twitch muscles are still there, he said, and he feels sharp coming out of his breaks. Thousands of NFL snaps mean he's rarely showing up to the Vikings' facility frazzled by how a team might attack him.
"As odd as this may sound, going into Year 11, I feel like I'm still in Year 3," he said. "I'm out there never tired, not stressed, always relaxed, in a position where I need to be. I feel like I have another five left in me, but only my body will be able to tell that story once those years come."
For all of those years to be in Minnesota, Peterson will have to perform this year. As he sees it now, on the eve of his 11th season, there's nothing standing in his way.
"These guys look up to me, and I don't take that very lightly," he said. "I want to show these guys how you can play eight-plus years in this league. I'm trying to get better, but I'm trying to make my teammates better, as well."