4 Potential Destinations for Adrian Peterson

According to rumors, Peterson's time in Minnesota is done. But should we trust what they say, and how long can he run?

I love the chaos associated with professional sports’ free agent market more than many others. The Major League Baseball hot stove most years is fantastically interesting, with massive player trades left and right, insane money being thrown at mediocre players, all of this making it seem like the sporting world’s version of The Wolf of Wall Street. The NFL, by comparison, is often much more tame.

Not anymore.

Aside from the real events that happened this week –- between crazy trades, crazier free agent negotiations, and impressive signings -– the rumor mill kicked into full effect as well. While it normally gets bizarre around this time, the conjecture started flying out at full speed this week, heralding the potential trade of San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick to the Bears, Jordan Cameron making amends with the Cleveland Browns, and even that Drew Brees might not be a New Orleans Saint much longer.

Even crazier to me, however, are the rumors about teams lining up around the block to trade for former Minnesota Vikings star running back Adrian Peterson. Through a simple Twitter search, you can find that the Vikings are evidently in talks with no less than five teams about trading Peterson, for packages ranging from two third-round draft picks to multiple first-rounders.

Is it possible that Peterson goes? If so, where’s his most likely destination? And does it matter to fantasy football owners?

Peterson Lays an Egg?

We’ll discuss potential trade partners for Peterson shortly, but first I want to look at the context of this player. In almost no other case would anyone care a jot about where a 30-year-old running back is playing (unless you’re Fred Jackson or Frank Gore), but these are special circumstances. Not only is Peterson one of the best players at the position in recent memory, he’s also not your average case when it comes to his “over-the-hill” status.

To understand how dominant he’s been, we turn to our signature metric here at numberFire, Net Expected Points (NEP). NEP is a way of measuring a player’s production on the field in a more qualitative way than the box scores alone can show. It gives contextual value to statistics, assigning each play a value represented in expected points, based on the probability of scoring on that drive from that down and distance. For more information on NEP, check out our glossary.

The table below shows Peterson’s career as represented in Rushing NEP and Reception NEP. How has he stacked up over the past eight seasons?

YearRushing NEPRankReception NEPRank

Look across the entire span of Peterson’s career. Only two seasons keep him from having been a top-10 runner every full year of his career; his main bugaboo in 2008 and 2009 was his fumbling. Versatile, he’s checked in as a top-20 receiving back every year as well. He’s been one of the most reliably dominant players at a position that is notorious for turnover and inconsistency.

What should worry folks some is his abbreviated 2014 campaign. True, it was a one-game sample size, and we all realize that that is far too statistically insignificant to make firm conclusions over, but it is enough to ask a question about. Is Peterson, he of the 2,262 career touches, finally becoming mortal?

And to Think That I Saw It on University Avenue

We don’t have much analysis done using this research, but I have been working on compiling new way of slicing NEP. We have ways of looking at rate metrics for Passing, Rushing, and Reception NEP, but we don’t often look at the big picture, the total. With skill position players often being used in many versatile ways (especially running backs), I find it extremely important to assess their whole worth in a comprehensive way. Volume, too, can affect our perception of player value. Even if a player’s efficiency slips, increased volume can create the appearance of sustained production. If we assess production rate, we get a better sense of true effectiveness.

To this end, I’ve started assessing per-opportunity Total NEP. Let’s roll this out right here in Peterson’s case. Will a clearer picture of Peterson’s career arc emerge if we look at his total value rate?

YearTotal NEP per Opportunity

We can see here that there is a much cleaner arc of efficiency than on the other table. An elite-level rookie year gave way to one baseline on value, then he reached his peak in 2011 and 2012, and had already begun to regress some in 2013. 2014, while again suspension-shortened, falls right in line with this trajectory.

I’ve also been doing a lot of research lately on the career arcs of players and positions. Looking at the big picture helps immensely to illustrate what we should expect in the future. I recently did a study on running back career production, and found that the second plateau drop in production occurs after Year 6 of their careers. While Peterson’s early career doesn’t fall directly in line with the pattern set forth by the study, the most recent part does, and 2012 was his Year 6. His 2013 value should be expected to be the new norm; not his value from 2011-12.

Now, remember: due to 2014’s suspension, he may have effectively “redshirted” a year, so this may push his deterioration off a year. Peterson is also an unusual physical specimen, as he proved in his injury rehab, so he may sustain a longer career than normal. Very likely, however, 2015 will be his last season playing at any level higher than replacement. Any team trading for him should expect no different.

Oh, the Places He’ll Go!

With all this in mind, these are the teams that have been rumored to be interested in Peterson –- or that he has requested to be traded to –- in order of fit.

Arizona Cardinals: Arizona made the playoffs last year after losing both starting quarterback Carson Palmer and running back Andre Ellington, not to mention hemorrhaging defensive starters all over the place. Yes, the team lost its defensive mastermind to a head coaching promotion this offseason, but this team is truly only one or two pieces away from real contention. They have the cap space and the need; Ellington can easily slide into a more change-of-pace role and both backs would be preserved better.

Dallas Cowboys: Dallas was looking to make a dominant run deep into the playoffs in 2014 until a controversial on-field ruling left them out in the cold for the NFC Championship game. Losing last year’s rushing leader will hurt, but they can easily replace him with one of the best running backs of the last decade. Behind that offensive line, Peterson would likely be able to sustain his prowess –- and health –- much, much longer. There’s some appeal to going home, too, as Peterson is from Palestine, Texas, and Jerry Jones has expressed interest in him before.

San Diego Chargers: There is no true lead back in the Chargers’ backfield, especially with Ryan Mathews' departure to the Eagles in free agency. With Philip Rivers going on 34, the Chargers’ window of competition with him is closing in the next few years. They still have to deal with the Denver Broncos, however, and head coach Mike McCoy has seemed to prefer running back committees in the past.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: A faltering offensive line and a huge vacuum at the starting quarterback position makes one wonder why Peterson requested a trade here. Doug Martin is still present on the team, and they invested in 2014 third-round rookie runner Charles Sims as well.

It also remains to be seen what teams would want to deal with the PR nightmare that would accompany a player who had to reach a plea bargain to avoid felony charges. If Peterson is traded, it would be monumental. Regardless of his disdain for the Vikings’ organization, it's tough to see a trade coming in the near future. Minnesota still believes it can compete in the near future, and the moves they’ve made suggest that Peterson won’t go anywhere if they can help it.