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Player Spotlight: Adrian Peterson

A detailed look at Adrian Peterson's fantasy prospects for 2013

If you've been following football for more than 30 minutes, Adrian Peterson needs no introduction. The talented Mr. Peterson had a season for the ages in 2012, falling just 8 yards short of the single-season rushing yardage record. The only backs since 1960 who averaged more than Peterson's 6.03 yards per carry with over 200 carries are Jim Brown, Jamaal Charles, Barry Sanders, and O.J. Simpson. The raw numbers, as impressive as they are, take a back seat to the story. Peterson accomplished his historic season despite being just nine months removed from a season-ending ACL injury in 2011. He played the last quarter of the year with a sports hernia that required surgery after the season was over. Every team Minnesota faced knew that Peterson was going to be getting the ball, and Minnesota had no choice but to give it to him anyway, which meant that Peterson faced more 8-man fronts than any other back in the league.

At the beginning of the 2012 season, Peterson gave few hints of what was to come. Through the first six games of the season, Adrian Peterson averaged a very respectable 83.2 rushing yards per game and a solid 4.4 yards per carry. Aside from his touchdown totals, Peterson's production was very similar to that of his 2009 and 2010 seasons, where he produced about 86.5 yards per game at about 4.5 yards per carry. He had struggled to score touchdowns, reaching the end zone just twice through six weeks, but it otherwise seemed like he was very much on track for a typical, garden-variety Adrian Peterson season. At the same time, Peterson seemed to be taking a back seat in Minnesota's offense to the sensational Percy Harvin. Through six weeks, Harvin had nearly as many yards from scrimmage as Peterson (603 vs. 628), the same number of offensive touchdowns (2 apiece), and Harvin tacked on an extra 445 yards on kickoff returns (at a league-leading 37.1 yards per return). If you had told someone at midseason that a Viking would win the AP's MVP and Offensive Player of the Year awards, they almost certainly would have assumed you meant Harvin, whose name was appearing on MVP watch lists everywhere from ESPN to Sports Illustrated to NFL.com.

Starting in Week 7, the script changed completely. Harvin had two more solid games before suffering a season-ending injury in Week 9. Adrian Peterson, on the other hand, embarked on the greatest stretch of football any running back has ever produced. From Week 7 onward, Adrian Peterson nearly doubled his early-season average, totaling an eye-opening 159.8 yards per game rushing. His per-carry average rose more than 50%, from 4.4 to 6.8. To put those numbers into perspective, had Peterson performed as well in the first six weeks as he did in the last ten weeks, he would have broken the single-season rushing record by more than 400 yards. He would have averaged more yards per attempt than any running back since Beattie Feathers managed 8.4 yards per attempt (on 119 carries)... back in 1934. To add some more perspective, realize that each of the 32 teams played 16 games, meaning that there were 512 total starts made by primary tailbacks in 2012 (ignoring starts by fullbacks or other secondary backs). 496 of those starts went to someone other than Adrian Peterson. In those 496 starts, a running back reached 150 rushing yards 17 times, or roughly once every 29 games. Adrian Peterson managed to reach that 150-yard plateau seven times in ten weeks.

I'm sure I don't need to point out how impossible these numbers are. Seasons like Peterson's 2012 campaign simply do not get repeated. The stars have to align perfectly for even the most talented players to reach heights like those. Prior to rushing for 150 yards seven times in 2012, Adrian Peterson had only topped the mark eight times in his entire career. Peterson's per-game rushing average was 21 yards higher than his previous career best, and 2012 was the first time he'd topped 5.0 yards per carry since he was a rookie in 2007. Anyone who is drafting Peterson assuming his 2013 season will be similar to his 2012 season needs to disabuse themselves of that notion.

On the other hand, I've seen some suggest this offseason that the fact that Peterson will almost certainly regress is a reason to take someone else with the #1 overall pick. This line of reasoning is every bit as flawed. Any player who has a fantastic season is likely to regress some the next year, because fantastic seasons are by definition outliers. I've seen some point out that the previous six backs to rush for 2,000 yards averaged just 1072 rushing yards the next year, or 1244 if you exclude Terrell Davis (who only played 4 games the following year). This is very misleading, without context. For instance, in the following chart I've listed the six previous 2,000 yard rushers, as well as their performance in the year immediately preceding and immediately following their 2,000 yard season, measured in rushing attempts per game, rushing yards per game, and rushing yards per carry.

PlayerYearAtt/GYds/GYPC
O.J. Simpson 1972 20.9 89.4 4.3
O.J. Simpson 1974 19.3 80.4 4.2
Eric Dickerson 1983 24.4 113.0 4.6
Eric Dickerson 1985 20.9 88.1 4.2
Barry Sanders 1996 19.2 97.1 5.1
Barry Sanders 1998 21.4 93.2 4.3
Terrell Davis 1997 24.6 116.7 4.7
Terrell Davis 1999 16.8 52.8 3.1
Jamal Lewis 2002 19.3 82.9 4.3
Jamal Lewis 2004 19.6 83.8 4.3
Chris Johnson 2008 16.7 81.9 4.9
Chris Johnson 2010 19.8 85.3 4.3

What stands out to me? First of all, it really highlights what a massive outlier Terrell Davis really was. The other five backs all had at least 80 rushing yards per game the following season, with an average of 86.2 rushing yards per game. That 86.2 yard average would translate to about 1380 rushing yards in 16 games. Four of the six backs saw little to no change between their yard per game averages before and after their 2,000 yard seasons.

So if Peterson post-2012 reverts back to around the levels of Peterson pre-2012, what would that look like? Well, prior to 2012, his career averages would work out to roughly 1500 rushing yards, 250 receiving yards, and 14.5 touchdowns per 16 games played. Adrian Peterson finished as a top 3 running back in each of his first four seasons. He finished as the 8th best fantasy running back in his fifth year, despite losing the last four games to injury. In other words, don't draft Adrian Peterson #1 overall because you think he'll repeat his performance last season. Draft him #1 overall because he doesn't have to.

POSITIVES

  • Adrian Peterson is a Pro Bowler, an All Pro, the reigning MVP, a future Hall of Famer, and one of the most talented runners to ever set foot on a football field.
  • Peterson has averaged 250 fantasy points per season for his career, and has never finished worse than 3rd at his position in a season where he played at least 14 games.
  • Peterson is a workout warrior with fabulous conditioning and an almost superhuman recovery time, which means he's far less likely to miss time during the season with bumps and bruises.
  • Peterson is the engine of an otherwise poor offense, and will be heavily relied upon at all times throughout the entire season.

NEGATIVES

  • Unless you own the #1 pick, you probably won't have an opportunity to draft him.
  • Adrian Peterson is typically not very involved in the passing game, which hurts him slightly in PPR leagues

FINAL THOUGHTS

The player drafted #1 overall rarely ends the season as the most valuable player. That's just the nature of the pick- if given a choice between any individual player and "the field", the field will usually win. Owners of the first pick should instead be focusing on players with very high floors. Adrian Peterson is the most talented back in the league, he has an unrivaled track record of production, and he's coming off of a season where he was the most valuable player in all of fantasy football. He's produced elite fantasy numbers on a 12-4 team with an offense featuring a Hall of Fame quarterback and a top-10 passing game. He's produced elite fantasy numbers on a 3-13 team with an offense featuring a well-past-his-prime veteran quarterback, a not-ready-for-prime-time rookie quarterback, and a bottom-5 passing game. Adrian Peterson has never played a full season and not been a top 5 fantasy asset. He's the surest thing in fantasy football, and worth whatever pick you have to use to acquire him.


ADRIAN PETERSON PROJECTIONS

ProjectionsRushRuYdsRuTDRecRecYdsRecTD
Adam Harstad 320 1536 12 40 320 1
David Dodds 322 1552 13 36 248 1

OTHER VIEWPOINTS

Sean Tomlinson of TheScore.com debates why Peterson should be the #1 selection

Much of the case against him as the top overall fantasy pick lies in a fear of history, and the fragile logic that since an event has happened in the past, it will continue to happen in the future. USA Today's Greg Kellogg outlined his case against Peterson thusly:

We know that about 60% of the top five by position will fall out of that lofty ranking each year. In fact, over the past six seasons only the tight end position has had more than 50% of the Top 5 repeat the following season (17-of-30). Running backs (33%) and wide receivers (23%) are particularly volatile.

Inconsistency and the volatile nature of the NFL running back is scary, but only if your expectations aren't aligned correctly. Again, relying on another 2,000-yard season is the stuff that shattered dreams are made of, over and over. But Peterson's aforementioned personal history goes against the other kind of history Kellogg speaks of, and if he falls to his career single-season rushing average prior to 2012, then so be it. That number is still a fine 1,350.4.

Ben Valentine of Sporting News explains why they have Peterson ranked as their #1 fantasy player

Not only did Peterson achieve lofty highs last season, he also didn't really have any lows. In Week 2, he rushed for 60 yards. In Week 6 he rushed for 79. Other than that, Peterson didn't have another game below 80 yards rushing. His bad games were what plenty of other running backs last season considered a solid effort.

Peterson's season was a surprise only in that he was coming off of a major procedure in a short time. It was not that he had the talent to dominate -- Peterson has been right there in the top three of fantasy drafts since his second season in the league.

A durable, explosive, work-horse back that has proven he can, and will, play through pain to put up dominant numbers is exactly what you want in your top pick. There is no safer selection, and no pick with higher upside, than Adrian Peterson.

The RotoPost.com staff profiles Peterson, their consensus #1 pick

Enough with the negatives, what speaks for Adrian Peterson being the first overall pick in your fantasy football draft? Well, first off, he has been ultra-consistent over his entire career. Peterson averaged over 16 points per game since he entered the league. His lowest total was 14.4 points in 2008, his highest total was 18.8 in 2012. ProFootballFocus also has Peterson ranked among the two best running backs in the game based solely on their running ability in each of the last three years. And Minnesota's offense ranked among the Top 3 in run blocking in each of the last two seasons. The Minnesota Vikings also are ranked 12th in our fantasy football strength of schedule ranking for running backs.


More from Adam Harstad:

Dynasty, in Theory: Throwing a Lifeline to Trade Deadlines - November 14
Dynasty, in Practice: Anchoring to Reality - November 8
Dynasty, in Theory: A Raft of Knowledge in an Ocean of Belief - November 7
Dynasty, in Theory: The Undiscovered Country - November 1
Dynasty, in Practice: Investing in the Future - November 1
Dynasty, in Practice: Trading Like You Mean It - October 25
Dynasty, in Theory: Living and Dying by the Trade - October 23
Dynasty, in Practice: Harvin Runs a Jet Sweep - October 18
Dynasty, in Theory: A Taxonomy of Belief - October 16
Dynasty, in Practice: Playing to Win the Game - October 11