Assuming Minnesota Vikings' Pro Personnel Executive, Rick Spielman, can avoid the reverse-Midas touch frequently exhibited by his local pro baseball team counterpart, there is no better time than the present for the Vikings to part ways with Adrian Peterson.
In the final year of his contract, Peterson likely will command a contract in the neighborhood of $40 million over four years with $26 million in guaranteed money. Despite continuing reports to the contrary, the Vikings currently sit approximately $12 million (not $320,000) under the salary cap. With limited creativity, the Vikings could sign Peterson to a long-term deal this year, halving their long-term obligation by bringing forward $12 million to this year's cap--more if the Vikings sign Chad Greenway to a long-term deal that includes less than $10 million in guaranteed money.
The issue facing the Vikings regarding Peterson, then, is not primarily one of long-term costs. Rather, the problem is that signing Peterson to a long-term deal means that the Vikings will be on the hook for several million dollars even as Peterson begins to decline in productivity. Given how many times the Vikings will need to get Peterson the ball in 2011 to be even remotely competitive, that decline is only likely to accelerate.
The Vikings can turn a dilemma into a bonanza, at least on the field, if, rather than signing Peterson, they put him on the trading block. That's a particularly difficult pill for the Vikings' front office to swallow, given that Peterson is the team's primary draw on and off the field and represents one of two clear strong draft selections in the Spielman era.
Whether to trade a star player near the peak of his career is a dilemma that most professional sports teams face at some point. Retaining Peterson would give the Vikings some hope of competing this year while trading him almost certainly would sour the locker room and demoralize an already fragile team. But if the best that the team can hope for in retaining Peterson is to have him oversee what likely will be a 2-3 year rebuilding process, then trading Peterson certainly could make sense.
What is Peterson, a good teammate, an upstanding member of the community, and one of the top players in the league likely to garner in a trade? Rather than looking at what other star players returned in a trade, a difficult proposition given the baggage that virtually all previously traded stars carried with them to their new teams, a better approach is to consider what a lesser player recently received as compensation.
The Carolina Panthers this week signed 28-year-old running back DeAngelo Williams to a five-year extension worth up to $43 million with $21 million in guaranteed money. By signing Williams to such an extension, Carolina essentially is acknowledging that Williams is worth more to them than a first-round pick and, likely, worth more to them than would be two first-round picks. Otherwise, Carolina either would have let Williams go in free agency and drafted a running back in what is likely to be a top-ten pick or traded Williams for a first-round pick--the minimum going rate for a bona fide starting running back. In the latter scenario, Carolina likely would have its choice of the best and the second best running back in the league.
Williams has not played a full season since 2008, when he rushed for over 1,500 yards and 18 touchdowns. In 2009, Williams' production fell to 1,100 yards and seven touchdowns in 13 games. Last year, in just six games, Williams finished with just 361 yards and a single touchdown.
Peterson, meanwhile, has proven far more consistent and far more durable. In each of his four seasons in the NFL, he has played at least 15 games, rushed for at least 1,200 yards, and scored double-digit touchdowns. All of this, despite playing in a system clearly demonstrated not to take the greatest advantage of Peterson's assets, either as a running back or as a receiver.
And, at 26, Peterson is two years younger than Williams.
In just four seasons, Peterson has become the most recognizable and revered of all Vikings' running backs, save, perhaps, for Chuck Foreman. That makes parting with him difficult, at best. More difficult will be the financial hit that losing Peterson likely would mean to the team in the short run, both in terms of ticket and merchandise sales. This probably makes a trade of Peterson unlikely, even in a year in which the Vikings, with holes on both sides of the ball, seem improbable suspects for making a run to the Super Bowl, or even the playoffs.
If the Vikings are willing to admit to themselves, their aging veterans, and their fans that this season is a gap year (euphemism), they ought, as well, acknowledge that trading Peterson, if done properly, can reap a return that positions the Vikings well for the long-term, rather than leaving the team with holes for the remainder of what would be Peterson's extension.
If Williams essentially is worth two first-round picks, the younger, far more productive Peterson ought to be worth at least that as well as some starting talent.
Who would be willing to trade with the Vikings at this level? Probably numerous NFL teams, including all three division rivals who would love to win at the Vikings' expense and who all have long-standing holes at running. But virtually any team in the league would covet Peterson. The question is which team is willing to part with draft picks and players for Peterson's services. That's Spielman's job to figure out and it should be an easy task.
Up Next: Personnel Moves That Ought to be Made.