The 2011 season marks the end to Minnesota Vikings' running back Adrian Peterson's rookie contract. Unlike any other major league sport, however, free agency in the NFL rarely means free agency--at least to the extent that cornerstone players are involved.
Last night's season-opening game between the Green Bay and the New Orleans Saints displayed the value of a competent running game. Alternating Ryan Grant and James Starks, the Packers were able to coax just enough out of their running attack to keep the Saints honest--a condition that became all the more significant in the waning seconds of the game than it had seemed in the opening quarter.
With good, not great, running backs, Green Bay is among the favorites to win the Super Bowl this year, with the running attack meaningfully augmenting a passing game that is the best in the league.
The Vikings find themselves in a diametrically opposite, if also less overwhelming, offensive position to that of the Packers. While the Packers rely on the passing game to set up the running game and rely on good to above average running backs to balance their passing attack, the Vikings rely on Adrian Peterson to set up everything in their offense. Given their lack of a deep threat at receiver and their shaky offensive line, that's both good, because Peterson is the best running back in the league, and depressing, because opposing teams know that, if they can stop Peterson, they can stop the Vikings.
At 26, Peterson is thus the face and the future of the Vikings. The question for the Vikings is what to do with a player on whom the team so heavily relies if continuing to rely so heavily on Peterson either coincides with or means that the team remains starved at other positions?
The ready answer for the Vikings front office is that, for the sake of the near-term bottom line, Peterson's return is essential. Jersey sales and interest in watching Peterson play eight times a year aside, without Peterson the fan interest in the Vikings almost certainly would precipitously decline. That's not necessarily an argument against trading Peterson for some healthy combination of picks and players, but it is the punctuation for being clear about what Peterson's departure would mean to the franchise in the wake of such a move.
The Vikings, of course, need not concern themselves with Peterson's departure if the team wants to keep him in the fold. All the cards, as they say, are in the Vikings' hands. The team can trade Peterson at his peak or retain him on the NFL's terms. And the worst case scenario for the Vikings is that the team loses Peterson for two first-round picks.
What makes the Vikings' situation relatively simple is that, barring a block-buster offer from another team, they have only one decision to make. That decision is whether to allow Peterson to negotiate a trade with another team, after the 2011 season, and after the team has franchised him. Any other ostensible decisions are made irrelevant by the fact that franchising Peterson ensures the Vikings the best return on the running back, not factoring in Peterson's possible sullen response to being franchised, and assuming no trade.
Franchising Peterson will cost the Vikings the average salary of the five highest paid running backs in 2011 or 120% of Peterson's 2011 salary, whichever is greater. At the moment, Peterson's 2011 salary is greater than the former. That means that franchising Peterson for the 2012 season would cost the Vikings approximately $13 million in 2012, or more than ten percent of the team's available cap space. Barring injury, Peterson probably will live up to such a salary in 2012, but the large cap hit might mean that the Vikings are without space to sign players to fill other voids already evident on the team.
The counter-concern to franchising is that re-signing Peterson outside of the realm of franchising continues to go up. With Chris Johnson recently signing a contract with $30 million in guaranteed money over six years, the much younger, stronger, and more productive Peterson almost certainly will command an additional $10 million in guaranteed money over five years. That's an $8 million salary cap hit per season without even accounting for what is certain to be an equivalent dollar figure in non-guaranteed money that becomes guaranteed each season. That likely would put the Vikings on the hook for $16-17 million in cap space over five years, just for Peterson.
For 2012, franchising Peterson, while expensive, appears to be the Vikings best salary cap move. The same can be said for 2013, during which the Vikings may again, for the final time, franchise Peterson. That would cost the Vikings 120% of Peterson's 2012 salary--approximately $15.6 million--in guaranteed money, but would still be less than the $16 or $17 million that the team likely would owe Peterson should it work out a contract with him rather than franchise him.
Where the Vikings would find themselves up against it would be in 2013, when the team could not franchise Peterson and Peterson could leave the team without any compensation to the team. Assuming Peterson remains a highly functioning running back in 2013, 2013 would be the year for the Vikings to negotiate a contract with Peterson. At that point, however, Peterson will see the light at the end of the tunnel and likely opt for free-agency, barring a market friendly offer by the Vikings.
What does all this suggest? it suggests that the Vikings' best option with Peterson, barring a lucrative trade, is to franchise him in 2012, assess his performance during the 2012 season, and, if merited, negotiate a three- or four-year extension, backloaded on non-guaranteed money, near the end of the 2012 season.
The alternative is to franchise Peterson after this season, allow him to negotiate with other teams, and let him go for two first-round picks--or to do the same after next season. That's not as bad as it might seem, as it would allow the Vikings to identify high-end free agents to fill at least two other holes and bring in the type of good to above average running back that suffices to make most NFL teams function these days. It would also save the Vikings the heartburn of having too many eggs in the basket of a position well-documented as the most injury prone in the league.
Up Next: The half-billion dollar fraud. Plus, playing more games with Webb.