The return of Adrian Peterson has led to much speculation on his ability to be a viable fantasy player. In an effort to see both sides of his 2018 potential, we asked two of our staffers a simple question: Is Adrian Peterson a Top 20 RB in non-PPR Scoring?
Yes, He Is - Matt Waldman
My bud Wood has the easiest side of the argument because it’s always easier to doubt a player whose current station doesn’t match the odds favoring youth, team continuity, and recent statistical performance. Based on the odds, Wood’s argument that Adrian Peterson will not be a top-20 running back in non-PPR scoring formats will be correct.
However, there are too many variables per pick to create a statistically predictable and successful team solely on the odds. Mid- and late-round players generally lack the favorable criteria found in a spreadsheet. They’re not the right age, they lack recent strong production, they’re recuperating from an injury, or they’ve been bouncing around the league. Adrian Peterson has been one of those players for the past three years.
So how do you evaluate Peterson? You pull up Wood’s projections and rankings, stare at them for about three seconds, and exit the screen as you pull up NFL Game Pass, YouTube, or my analysis of Peterson that actually shows you what happens on the field.
Successful fantasy performances most often occur when a talented individual is working with quality supporting talents in a scheme that complements that individual’s strengths (Individual talent + surrounding talent + scheme fit). However, before you can project successful performance you must look at each individual part of the equation.
This is where my man Wood is off-track. He’s examining data-based criteria to form a conclusion. As much as we like to use data as a supporting argument about a player’s talent, simplistic production and efficiency changes lack a direct correlation to that player’s ability. It’s why the contextual process of what happens on the field has more value the results-based data.
You have to evaluate Peterson, his past surrounding talent, and his current surrounding talent separately. Then, you can put them together. When you do, you’ll discover several insights:
- Adrian Peterson still has NFL-starter talent.
- When the Cardinals had a healthy offensive line and a healthy starting quarterback, Peterson produced like an NFL starter talent.
- Washington’s offensive line was operating without starter talent last year due to injuries.
- Despite those injuries, Washington has one of the most versatile lines in the league when it comes to blocking schemes.
- Peterson has thrived in every blocking scheme that the NFL runs.
- He may not be used this way, but Peterson’s tape – and statistical history – reveals that he catches the ball well enough to earn 30-50 receptions.
If Washington decides to use Peterson as its lead back and the Washington line and quarterback remain healthy, Peterson can deliver top-20 production.
Based on his 2017 tape – including his final games of the year – the only part of Peterson’s game that has diminished since his prime years of production is his top-end speed. He has enough acceleration to crease a defense and outrun athletic linebackers into the secondary for gains up to 40 yards. However, he lacks the top speed to consistent flip the field for breakaway runs at the rate he used to. Jordan Howard, Carlos Hyde, Devonta Freeman, Alex Collins, C.J. Anderson, and Frank Gore lack that top gear and all six were top-20 fantasy running backs last year.
Peterson and these backs have several things in common:
- Short-area quickness to beat fast defenders through creases.
- Footwork, vision, and acceleration to create when blocking breaks down.
- Acceleration to the edge where he can gain the corner for positive yards.
- Tackle-breaking balance and power to earn yards after contact.
Washington’s offense features a lot of two-tight end sets and a strong variation of run plays. Many of them feature the quarterback under center and the running back seven yards deep. Peterson’s addition won’t be a dramatic change for Washington’s scheme; they added him because he’s a match for what they do.
Rob Kelley and Samaje Perine are not in Adrian Peterson’s class of athletic ability that’s relevant to running the football. Peterson has superior power, balance, and acceleration. Peterson also remains capable of handling a high-volume workload. He had games with 26, 39, and 24 touches last year and he didn’t wear down.
Matt Bitonti rates Washington the No. 7 offensive line in football, and it has a top grade for Cohesion. What they’ve lacked is a veteran running back that can perform consistently at a high level. Peterson will be at his best if Washington can commit to the ground game like the Jaguars did with Leonard Fournette. Data-based analysis often misses the context of committing to the run and I already showed last year that it’s short-sighted to judge Peterson solely on box score production that’s out of context.
Is it wise to select Peterson as a top-20 fantasy running back in drafts? Of course but it’s equally foolish to dismiss him with data lacking the proper context of talent, scheme, and fit.
No, He's Not - Jason Wood
Why is it so hard for great athletes to walk away gracefully? For every Jim Brown or Barry Sanders who retire in their primes, countless legends just can’t accept the reality of declining abilities. Before you get excited about Adrian Peterson’s one-year contract with Washington, remember history is not on his side. Emmitt Smith was a Cardinal. Eric Dickerson was a Raider and Falcon. Tony Dorsett was a Bronco. Edgerrin James was a Seahawk. So was Franco Harris. Thurman Thomas ended his career with his hated rival Dolphins. O.J. Simpson was a 49er. Earl Campbell finished his career in New Orleans, as did Jim Taylor. These all-time great running backs all have one thing in common, they didn’t know when to call it a career.
Adrian Peterson will someday join most of those gentlemen in Canton, but he’s already joined them lacking self-awareness. A season ago, Peterson signed with New Orleans desperate to prove the Vikings were wrong to part ways with him. His tenure lasted four games because Mark Ingram II was a better power runner and rookie Alvin Kamara was more explosive. Peterson couldn’t hold a candle to either. The Cardinals, desperate for help after losing David Johnson, added Peterson and suffered through an embarrassing six-game stint.
Now Washington, beset with injuries, is giving Peterson yet another shot at tarnishing his impeccable on-field legacy. But let’s consider what had to happen for Peterson to get the call? Derrius Guice tore his ACL. Chris Thompson is only 80% by his own admission after breaking his leg. Byron Maxwell is hurt. Martez Carter is injured. And Samaje Perine hurt his ankle. It took five injured running backs for Peterson’s phone to ring.
But surely Peterson is better than Rob Kelley – the current starter according to head coach Jay Gruden – or Perine, last year’s rookie bust, right? Let’s not jump to conclusions:
- Player A: 156 rushes for 529 yards (3.4 yards per attempt), 11 receptions for 70 yards, and two touchdowns
- Player B: 175 rushes for 603 yards (3.4 yards per attempt), 22 receptions for 182 yards, and two touchdowns
Player A is Adrian Peterson last year. Player B is Samaje Perine. They were the same player a season ago, yet Perine is 22 years old and still learning the nuances of the NFL, while the other is 33 years old and out of the league a few days ago. Even if you think Peterson can be better than Perine, which is possible, it’s hard to give Peterson enough work to become relevant in anything but the deepest of leagues.
As a team, Washington ran for 1,448 yards (3.6 per attempt) and ten touchdowns last season. They ranked 27th in yards, 21st in touchdowns, and 30th in yards per attempt. What portion of the workload does Peterson need to be a top-20 performer? Over the last five seasons, RB20 has averaged:
- 191 carries
- 808 rushing yards
- 4.2 yards per attempt
- 31 receptions
- 297 receiving yards
- 6 total touchdowns
Finishing in the Top 20 is not as impressive as it used to be, but is Peterson capable of 1,100 total yards and six touchdowns? It’s not a Herculean leap to think Peterson could rush for 800 yards if he displaced Kelley and Perine as the starter. It’s harder to imagine averaging 4.2 yards per attempt behind Washington’s line, considering Peterson averaged 3.0 yards last year behind a devastatingly good Saints unit. It’s next to impossible to imagine Peterson catching 30 balls for 300 yards for two reasons. One, he’s not a great receiver and never has been. Two, Chris Thompson’s role as the third-down back is secure.
With drafts fast approaching, Peterson’s signing is going to entice someone in every league. It only takes one owner to convince themselves miracles really do happen, but we’re here to make sure you’re not that league owner. For your dream to come true, Peterson has to make the team. Then he has to displace Kelley and Perine as the starter. From there he has to be good enough to avoid a running-back committee situation. He also needs to show marked improvement over last year’s game film in every facet of the game. Could he be a top-20 fantasy back? Yes, just barely. Will he be a top-20 fantasy back? You’re only going to say yes if you’re wearing a Franco Harris Seahawks jersey right now.