I’m going to ruffle some feathers among my Minnesota brethren with this one: I don’t think Adrian Peterson is worth a top five pick in fantasy this year.
According to FantasyPros average draft position, Peterson is currently going first in standard leagues. To me, the first round is mostly about safety. You want to pick someone who is very likely to provide a significant advantage at their position, not for the potential of providing a significant advantage. I understand Peterson’s upside: it’s as high as anyone in the league; but there are too many red flags present for me to consider him safe enough to take in the top five, let alone first overall. Let’s take a look at the negative attributes that I feel a lot of people are glossing over.
A Year Off = Uncertainty
There are two schools of thought when it comes to evaluating the impact of Peterson’s lost 2014 season. The first, and most prevalent, is that it will be good for him in 2015: the year of no contact will mean fresher legs. The other is that the year off adds a layer of uncertainty when trying to evaluate Peterson’s talent heading into his age 30 season. I subscribe more to the latter.
The last we saw of Peterson (besides week 1 last year) was two seasons ago, when he finished as the RB8 in standard leagues after being unanimously drafted at #1. On average, running backs peak in their age 26 season. Peterson’s monster year came in his age 27 season (2012), his production declined quite a bit at age 28 (2013), he missed a season, and is now being drafted at #1 again at age 30. Owners aren’t drafting him that high expecting a repeat of 2013, they’re expecting something closer to 2012. If we had seen him regain his status as a top five rusher last year, it would be much easier for me to attribute his 2013 decline to injuries or offensive woes and expect a sustained high level of production in 2015. Since we didn’t see what he could do last year, we’re left hoping that his 2013 season wasn’t indicative of the decline that we’ve come to expect from running backs at his age. Even if it wasn’t indicative of his decline, the odds that Peterson has declined significantly from age 27 to 30 are still high.
Think about it like this: If Peterson had played last year and finished the season at a very reasonable RB8 (like the previous year), would his ADP be at #1 this year? It would probably be somewhere in the early second round with the likes of Demarco Murray and LeSean McCoy. It seems to me that the lost year has added an incomplete narrative to Peterson’s story, which fantasy owners have filled with visions of the 27 year old superstar he was three years ago.
I also don’t buy the idea that an extra year off gives a running back fresher legs. The six month offseason that these players usually get should be enough to heal from any minor ailments the previous season caused. If anything, I would think it would be more likely that the year off could add some rust to his game than give him more juice.
We’ve established that the average peak age for a running back is 26. That doesn’t mean that they can’t have great seasons past that age, or even past 30. It just means that it gets increasingly less likely. Most of the greats aren’t exempt from father time, either. LaDainian Tomlinson was one of the most productive running backs of all time, and even he saw his rushing yards go from 1,815 at age 27, to 1,474 at 28, 1,110 at 29, and 730 at 30. Marshall Faulk had a similar decline at the same ages. Other backs that had great seasons in their 30’s often did so without carrying immense workloads in their 20’s (a la Tiki Barber in 2005). Even with missing 2014, Peterson has still touched the ball an inordinate number of times in his career. The only running back to survive both the age and carry cliff seems to be Emmitt Smith.
Other than Frank Gore, Peterson is older than every other back that will be drafted in most leagues.
Poor Offensive Line
One of the major arguments made for Peterson is that the offense around him will be much more talented this year than he’s used to. While that’s true for the skill position players, it really isn’t for the offensive line. The Vikings made no significant additions to a line that struggled last year, and while getting guard Brandon Fusco back from injury should help, losing an above average run blocking right tackle in Phil Loadholt for the season will not. The Vikings may have struck gold in Loadholt’s replacement, fourth round rookie T.J. Clemmings, but he is still a rookie fourth round pick. There will be growing pains at the very least. Left tackle Matt Kalil has been one of the worst in the league the last two seasons, and there is no viable replacement for him if he continues to struggle. Starting center and team leader John Sullivan has not practiced or played in weeks due to back spasms, and while he should be good to go for the regular season, this offensive line would be in a world of hurt if they flared up again and Sullivan missed time. The Vikings basically need everything to break right for them to even have an average offensive line this year. If they don’t, I’m not sure Peterson still has the ability to produce a top 5 rushing season on his own.
Meaningless Narratives Overrating His Value
There seems to be a type of aura, or mystique, surrounding Adrian Peterson, and maybe rightfully so. His 2,000 yard 2012 season coming off an ACL tear was one of the most amazing performances I’ve seen in any sport. Many people doubted that he could pull off such an amazing season after such a serious injury and were proven very wrong. This has led to many people refusing to doubt him as the odds are stacked against him this time around. The idea is: if anyone can buck the trend of declining 30 year old running backs, Adrian can. The issue is: they’re not the same obstacles he’s overcoming. Just because he has shown that he can come back strong after an injury doesn’t mean that age won’t affect his performance. The simple fact is that we haven’t seen Adrian Peterson age like we’ve seen him come back from injury. We have no idea how he’ll handle it.
The other prevailing narrative that seems to get thrown around a lot when propping up Peterson is that “he’ll run angry” due to his season-long suspension and off the field troubles. I don’t doubt that he will be highly motivated this year, but Adrian Peterson has always been highly motivated. He’s always run angry. So do Marshawn Lynch and Eddie Lacy. Some perceived grievances aren’t going to make a player who already leaves his heart and soul on the field somehow play even harder. Adrian Peterson can’t play any harder.
Less Risky Competition
In my opinion, the other players in consideration for the top spot offer more safety:
- Eddie Lacy – Lacy may be a tad less talented than the rest of this group, but he is the safest running back and would be my #1 pick in standard leagues. He’s proven, young, and on a dominant offense that now has less mouths to feed with the loss of Jordy Nelson.
- Le’Veon Bell – Bell is also a very safe pick, but only if you can find a replacement for him during his two week suspension. He’s young, on a great offense behind a great offensive line, and possibly the most talented back in the league. My only issue with him is that if you go down 0-2 to start the season, you might be in trouble.
- Jamaal Charles – Charles is a little riskier than the first two. He’s a little older, a little more injury prone, and has a worse offensive line. With that said, he has just as much talent as any back in the league was the #1 overall player in fantasy just two seasons ago. Efficiency-wise, he was still great last year, but minor injuries took a toll on his overall numbers. At 28 years old, I don’t think we’ve seen his decline yet.
- Marshawn Lynch – Everybody predicted Lynch’s age decline last year and it never happened: he actually had a better season in 2014 than 2013, and carried that production into the playoffs. Until we actually see Lynch’s ability decline, I’m not betting against him.
- Antonio Brown – Brown is probably the safest player in the draft. He’s an unbelievably talented target hog in a great offense in the prime of his career. It sucks missing out on a running back in the first round, but Brown can still win you your league.
I would also consider taking Jeremy Hill, Rob Gronkowski, and the rest of the top four receivers ahead of Peterson, for what it’s worth.
I don’t think Peterson is going to have a bad year, but when picking in the top five, you’re expecting a great year. I think the odds of Adrian Peterson having a great year are significantly less than several other players.
Our staff writer Thanh Huynh loves Peterson this year, and will be posting the case for taking him #1 overall.