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What if Adrian Peterson is Lost for the Season?

What would happen to the Minnesota offense if Adrian Peterson is lost for the season?

Adrian Peterson is 30 years old, past the age at which running back decline should be expected. From 2011-2013, he suffered a torn ACL, a high ankle sprain, a mid-foot sprain, and had two groin surgeries - a terrifying recent history of lower body injuries for a player the Vikings (and fantasy owners) are counting on for a heavy workload this season.

No one knows for sure how Peterson’s body will react after a year away from the game. The time off could very well help him avoid the injuries that have plagued him in recent years. But it’s equally possible Peterson becomes more susceptible to injury as his body re-acclimates to the beating that comes with being an NFL running back.

Hopefully this article doesn’t turn out to be as useful as it was last year, but at least this time around we can prepare for a prolonged Peterson absence by learning from recent history.

Here’s how the Vikings’ running back production was distributed with Peterson active for just one game last season:

  Games Rush Att Rush Yds YPA Rush TD Tgts Rec Rec Yds Rec TD
Matt Asiata 15 164 570 3.5 9 63 44 312 1
Jerick McKinnon 11 113 538 4.8 0 41 27 135 0
Joe Banyard 15 21 88 4.2 0 11 9 62 0
Ben Tate 3 13 38 2.9 0 0 0 0 0

If Peterson were to go down due to injury (let’s hope for no repeats of last year’s bizarre suspension), it’s clear the two backs we should be interested in for fantasy purposes are Matt Asiata and Jerick McKinnon. Many fantasy owners will look back on Asiata’s cumulative market share of rushing attempts and touchdowns in 2014, and assume he’d be the preferable pickup in the event of a Peterson injury, but an interesting trend developed before McKinnon was lost for the season following the Vikings’ Week 12 game.

If we limit the window to Weeks 6-12 of last season, the production split between McKinnon and Asiata looked like this:

  Games Rush Att Rush Yds YPA Rush TD Tgts Rec Rec Yds Rec TD
Matt Asiata 5 23 48 2.08 3 19 13 100 0
Jerick McKinnon 6 83 372 4.48 0 25 19 80 0

As McKinnon earned the trust of the coaching staff as a rookie, it became clear the Vikings did not envision their backfield as a 50/50 platoon with Peterson sidelined. McKinnon handled over 78% of the team’s rushing attempts from Weeks 6-12. For context, the only running back to exceed a 78% market share of his team’s carries last season was DeMarco Murray.

The rub, of course, is that McKinnon failed to score a single touchdown last year, and despite being otherwise phased out in favor of McKinnon, Asiata’s role at the goal line remain unchanged from Weeks 6-12. Over the six game sample, Asiata had five carries from inside the opposing team’s five-yard line, while McKinnon only had one. Asiata will not easily relinquish his role as goal line vulture this season - his 47% touchdown conversion rate on goal line carries was fifth best in the league (minimum 10 carries).

So which Vikings running back should you prioritize in the event Peterson is lost for the season, and what are the ripple effects for Minnesota’s remaining skill players?

Buy

Jerick McKinnon - Even if he lacks huge weekly upside due to Asiata’s presence at the goal line, McKinnon is the Vikings running back to own if Peterson goes down for the year. Not only did McKinnon dominate touches in Minnesota’s backfield once he gained the confidence of his coaching staff, but he was remarkably efficient with those touches. According to Pro Football Focus, McKinnon averaged 2.62 yards after contact per attempt, which tied him for seventh best among qualifying running backs. It’s also likely we didn’t get to see McKinnon at his best last year. McKinnon’s breakout performance came in Week 4 against the Falcons when he ran for 135 yards on 18 carries. He injured his ankle during the game, which landed him on the injury report in subsequent weeks. In Week 9, we got news McKinnon was dealing with a lower back ailment. He would play with the condition (which eventually required surgery) for four games before eventually shutting it down. The upside for the best measured athlete at the 2014 scouting combine would be sky high in a feature role, if what we saw from him last year was how he plays through pain.

Hold

Vikings Pass Catchers - You could make the case Mike Wallace, Charles Johnson, and Kyle Rudolph would qualify as buys sans Peterson, but except for maybe a tad more touchdown upside, their roles should remain largely unaffected. Last year, without Peterson, the Vikings ranked 13th in rushing play percentage, which is fairly consistent with Norv Turner’s tendencies from his last three seasons as coach of the Chargers. Don't expect a huge uptick in passing plays just because Peterson isn't playing, but these guys will all be fine.

Sell

None - Teddy Bridgewater was the 11th ranked fantasy quarterback over the final seven games of last season without Peterson. With a year of experience now under his belt, he’ll be good enough to keep the Vikings’ offense productive if Peterson were lost.

Add

Matt Asiata - If Peterson goes down, and McKinnon is also on the waiver wire, make sure you snatch him up first. You won’t be able to rely on Asiata for consistent production, but his touchdown upside gives him weekly flex appeal, which will be helpful as you navigate injuries and bye weeks. Just be prepared for a donut in your lineup (or something close to it) when he fails to plod his way into the end zone.

Drop

None - Again, the Vikings’ offense is in Teddy Bridgewater’s capable hands should Peterson be lost for the year. Wallace, Johnson, and Kyle Rudolph are quality skill position players who can thrive in this offense with or without Peterson.