The Gut Check No. 424: Adrian Peterson Trade

Matt Waldman takes a deep dive into the Adrian Peterson trade and discovers we may be asking the wrong questions about the running back.

Re-Framing the Question

Can Adrian Peterson be productive? It's not as much about Adrian Peterson's ability as you think.  It is about philosophy and surrounding talent.

Consider the pattern of these series of numbers. For simplicity's sake, anything number with the value four and above is positive. Any value below four is negative.

At the end of each series of numbers, I've tallied the number of positive and negative in the string: 

  • 0, 11, 2, 25, 5, 2, 0, -2, 7, 9, 6, 3, 2, 0, 4, -4, 2, 4, 8, 4, 4, 3, -1, 0, 4, 9, 3, 19  (14 positive/14 negative)
  • 2, 2, 5, 5, 21, 2, -1, -2, 6, 1, 3, 2, 4, 43, 2, 4, 10, 1, 5, 11 (10 positive/10 negative)
  • 3, 8, -1, 3, 4, 3, -1, 2, 4, 3, 1, -1, 6, 1, -2, 48, 7, -1 (6 positive/12 negative)
  • 3, 2, -3, 2, 12, 0, -4, 1, 1, 2, -2, 75, -3, 15, -2, -5, -2, 0, 0, 1 (3 positive/17 negative)
  • 6, 8, 3, 1, 3, 1, 3, 11, 9, 12, 12, 3, 5, -2, 3, 5, 7, 0, 4, 1, 9 (11 positive/10 negative)
  • 0, 7, 1, 6, 9, 6, -1, 11, 2, 2, 15, 2, 4, 12, -1, 2, 2, -1, 4, -2, 12, 13, 3, 4, 2, -1, 3, 11, 6, 1 (13 positive/16 negative)

These numbers were the play-by-play yardage outcomes of Adrian Peterson's carries for the following games in 2015 (fantasy points from rushing yards in parenthesis):

  • Week 2 vs. Detroit:  29 carries, 134 yards (13.4 fantasy points)
  • Week 3 vs. San Diego: 20 carries, 126 yards, 2 Touchdowns (24.6 fantasy points)
  • Week 4. vs. Denver: 16 carries, 81 yards, 1 Touchdown (14 fantasy points)
  • Week 7 vs. Detroit: 19 carries, 98 yards, 3 touchdowns (27.8 fantasy points)
  • Week 8 vs. Chicago: 20 carries, 103 yards (10.3 fantasy points)

I didn't even include Peterson's two best games from this five-game snapshot of his 327-carry, 1485-yard, 11-touchdown season. What you should glean from this exercise is that Peterson's style of play requires a committment to the ground game in the same manner that the Jaguars committed to kicking the Steelers rear ends all over Heinz Field last Sunday.

Committing to the run is an ugly process for football fans who think good football is highlight-worthy outcomes on every touch. It's also nonsensical to those who don't look at statistics in the correct context. What they see is a highly inefficient process where Peterson and his teammates generate as many (if not more) negative outcomes than positive outcomes. 

What they must understand is the macro effect of physical plays that often aren't individually impactful at least 50 percent of the game. The more an offensive line can attack a defense (and the running game is the form of offensive football where linemen are on the attack), the more energy it costs the defense to thwart it. As the defense tires physically, it gets pushed around easier.

This cumulative effect doesn't just happen in the fourth quarter. It can also happen at the end of a physical series or even a couple of plays—snaps that force the defensive front to expend maximum explosion in an unexpected fashion that robs them of their stamina short-term and then eventually long-term. 

So when you look at Adrian Peterson in 2016-17, it's short-sighted to judge him solely by box score stats that are 6-18-0, 8-26-0, 9,-33-0, and 4-4-0. You have to examine his decision-making, the line play, his fit with an offense, and his athletic ability. 

It's why judging Peterson on something like this week 1 video is incomplete and dangerous analysis. 

There's literally nothing from the Saints opener that tells that Peterson is incapable of what he's done throughout his career because many of the runs that he's known for were sandwiched by touches that look like the series of numbers above.  In fact, you could take a six-carry string from the series of touches from the games listed above and generate similar box scores as Peterson's 2017 opener (see bold and italicized figures)

  • Week 2 vs. Detroit:  29 carries, 134 yards (13.4 fantasy points)...6 carries, 23 yards
  • Week 3 vs. San Diego: 20 carries, 126 yards, 2 Touchdowns (24.6 fantasy points)...6 carries, 9 yards
  • Week 4. vs. Denver: 16 carries, 81 yards, 1 Touchdown (14 fantasy points)...6 carries, 20 yards
  • Week 7 vs. Detroit: 19 carries, 98 yards, 3 touchdowns (27.8 fantasy points)...6 carries, 22 yards
  • Week 8 vs. Chicago: 20 carries, 103 yards (10.3 fantasy points)...6 carries, 18 yards

Several of these six-carry samples came within his first 10-12 touches. Again, I did not pick the smallest gains from different points in the game and add them together; I simply choose six consecutive touches to arrive at the samples.  

Think about these strings of individual touches that look like the Saints box score and consider that these are the typical outcomes in an Adrian Peterson game that also features runs of this caliber below:  

It's why we must not only re-frame the question from solely "is Adrian Peterson still good enough?" to "is Adrian Peterson a good fit for the Cardinals offense?", but also add "are the Cardinals good enough to support what it wants to do with Peterson?"

what the Cardinals want to do is a match for Peterson's M.O. 

The Saints like to spread the field and use shotgun and pistol looks. It uses the pass to the set up the run. The Cardinals use the run to set up the pass and prefers to operate with Carson Palmer under center.

 

Cardinals offense and traditional I-back leanings

A post shared by Matt Waldman (@mattwaldmanrsp) onOct 10, 2017 at 9:33am PDT

We know that Arizona uses its share of shotgun spread looks, but you'll see that its base offense has a heavy concentration of alignments with Palmer under center, two-tight end sets, a tight end on the wing or as a fullback, or multiple receivers tight to the formation where the big fella Larry Fitzgerald is used as both an edge blocker and short area receiver. 

 

Cardinals run offense

A post shared by Matt Waldman (@mattwaldmanrsp) onOct 10, 2017 at 9:36am PDT

Although some of these plays aren't working well against the Eagles early on and the Cardinals fall behind, you can see that Arizona truly wants to commit to the run and it lacks a back who can truly push the pile like Peterson. 

 

Cards run scheme

A post shared by Matt Waldman (@mattwaldmanrsp) onOct 10, 2017 at 9:40am PDT

 Even when the offense is down and pinned deep in its own territory, Bruce Arians and Carson Palmer operate from center—even on pass plays. 

 

Cards offense backed up and playing from a deficit

A post shared by Matt Waldman (@mattwaldmanrsp) onOct 10, 2017 at 9:44am PDT

Palmer has been working the three-, five-, and seven-step drops from center since he was in high school. He's an old-school rhythm passer with a great deal of expertise in traditional NFL passing principles. His game needs an I-formation or single set back who can pound it between the tackles.

Even when the Cardinals run from the pistol, they pull the guard and have a power element to the play. 

 

Cards run from pistol

A post shared by Matt Waldman (@mattwaldmanrsp) onOct 10, 2017 at 9:48am PDT

While the Cardinals offensive line has problems, the Arizona run scheme is based on inside zone and gap plays and Chris Johnson, Kerwynn Williams, and Andre Ellington are suited best for outside zone. This is one of the bigger reasons why the organization misses David Johnson; it can't pound the ball and force that extra defender in the box to open up the pass. 

 

Cards like to run inside and CJ2k more of an outside zone RB

A post shared by Matt Waldman (@mattwaldmanrsp) onOct 10, 2017 at 9:50am PDT

Because the Cardinals operate a significant part of its passing game with Palmer under center, from heavy and bunched formations, and prefer running between the tackles to set up its vertical game with play-action, Peterson is a strong match in theory. 

how Peterson and David Johnson are stylistically related

We'll never confuse Peterson's receiving chops with Johnson's. However, they're both hard-running, hard-cutting running backs with burst, strength, balance, and long speed when they earn a big runway. 

Johnson actually arrived at these similarities between his first and second seasons with the Cardinals. At Northern Iowa, Johnson spent a lot of time as a shotgun runner who didn't have that seven-yard runway to the line of scrimmage like Peterson at Oklahoma. Although he had the core footwork and agility of a top-shelf runner Johnson had to develop greater patience to the line of scrimmage. 

This carry against Washington is a fine example of how Johnson has developed as a ballcarrier in the NFL. 

 

Mature tun by DJ

A post shared by Matt Waldman (@mattwaldmanrsp) onDec 5, 2016 at 9:45am PST

 As we delve further into Johnson's portfolio, note the long runways that the Cardinals often provided for him. This shotgun run has a long runway before a cut is required in the crease. 

 

Gap play from gun

A post shared by Matt Waldman (@mattwaldmanrsp) onOct 10, 2017 at 10:03am PDT

Peterson's cutback ability, burst, balance, and run stamina are a distant memory to most of us. Because we haven't seen him do it consistently during the past two years due to injury and a poor fit in New Orleans, we have doubts that he can—especially when we throw in the age component, which is another complication and potentially a bias that muddies the issue unnecessarily. 

I've shown this play twice during the past year; it's a run from Peterson after his 2016 knee surgery. He was not 100 percent and he still demonstrated the requisite burst and lateral agility of a good NFL back in a downhill running game.  

 

All Day good run, rust with ball security

A post shared by Matt Waldman (@mattwaldmanrsp) onDec 19, 2016 at 4:55am PST

 Here's Peterson earlier this year. The burst and the ability to plant-and-go is still very much there. 

 

A Peterson still looks fine to me...

A post shared by Matt Waldman (@mattwaldmanrsp) onSep 17, 2017 at 8:26pm PDT

 You could practice insert "All Day" into this play and get a similar result as Johnson, who is doing many of the same things when afforded a runway to get into the line of scrimmage. 

 

Insert All Day

A post shared by Matt Waldman (@mattwaldmanrsp) onOct 10, 2017 at 10:05am PDT

Considering what I've just shown you, I also believe this cutback run from Johnson is not outside Peterson's pay grade. 

 

Off tackle cutback

A post shared by Matt Waldman (@mattwaldmanrsp) onOct 10, 2017 at 10:04am PDT

The bigger question for me isn't if Peterson can do a lot of what Johnson can do on the ground, but whether the Cardinals offensive line can supply the lanes for these scenarios to occur. 

State of the Cardinals offensive line

Heading into Week 5, Matt Bitonti had Arizona's line as his 29th-ranked unit. It's a big drop from Bitonti's preseason ranking of the Cardinals as a top-tier unit. Stalwart left guard Mike Iupati suffered a triceps injury and landed on injured reserve and left tackle D.J. Humphries, who is expected back any week now, has been out since Week 1 with a knee sprain. 

Guard Alex Boone, who was supposed to start at right guard as the replacement for Evan Boehm, is now at left guard to replace Iupati. Because the right guard is one of the most important anchors for running inside, it's a huge blow for the ground game.

That's still not the whole story. It may not even be half of the story, which is why Adrian Peterson's fit could provide a boost for the Cardinals. The Ravens lost Marshal Yanda—arguably the best right guard in the league—and it has still generated three top-45 fantasy runners as of this week (Javorius Allen RB19; Terrance West RB39; and Alex Collins RB45).

The yards-per-carry comparisons among fantasy RB33 Andre Ellington (3.8) aren't much different than West and Allen (each 3.5). Collins, a hard-charging runner with strong cutback ability in a physical frame is average 7.1 per carry. While I loathe using yards-per-carry averages as a supporting argument, there's an underlying reason:

The Ravens backs are out-touching the Cardinals' runners on the ground 143 to 89. One could argue that the offensive line is more effective in Baltimore so the volume is higher. It's also possible that the Ravens are more committed to the run even with a similar yards-per-carry average for the two players who represent 105 of those 143 touches. Collins is also the best stylistic fit for this ground game, a style that is closer to David Johnson and Peterson than any of the backs mentioned for either team. 

The Cardinals lacked the runner it needed to commit to a power run game. Now that it has, the yards-per-carry may not rise significantly, but the commitment to the run may. 

What about David Johnson?

The earliest Johnson can return is November 9, but Bruce Arians told Kent Somers in late September that the return could be as late as Christmas. Adding Peterson signals two things: 1) Johnson may not be ready early enough to help the Cardinals make a playoff push. 2) The Cardinals can't wait that long to have any shot at the playoffs. 

Speaking of Johnson, let's look at some of his carries on a per-play basis last year: 

  • 2,-2,3,1,7,6,8,3,3,0,3,5,3,1,45,1 (5 positive/11 negative)
  • 0,10,8,5,1,0,1,0,4,10,2,4 (6 positive/6 negative)
  • 2,2,-3,5,5,1,11,6,4,3,6,1,4,3,-1,13,4,0,0,22 (10 positive/10 negative)
  • -2,3,10,8,6,3,2,6, 31,-3,0,6,3,11,3,1,1,1 (7 positive/11 negative)
  • 17,1,7,6,4,6,12,1,4,3,1,4,2,4,-2,1,7,4,5,23,11,2, 18,5,-2,9,6,3,2 (18 positive/11 negative)
  • 3,58,2,1,1,0,1,4,2,2,-5,-1,14,0,6,5,1,2,4,7,2,2 (7 positive/15 negative)

Other than one week, Johnson's individual strings of carries from his 293-1239-16 campiang last year look similar to Peterson's 2015 season. 

Here are the play-by-play yardage outcomes of Johnson's carries for those games from 2016 (fantasy points from rushing yards in parenthesis). In fact, you could take a six-carry string from the series of touches from the games listed above and generate similar box scores for Johnson as Peterson's 2017 opener (see bold and italicized figures): :

  • Week 1 vs. New England:  16 carries, 89 yards, 1 touchdown (14.9 fantasy points) (6 carries, 17 yards)
  • Week 2 vs. Tampa Bay: 12 carries, 45 yards (4.5 fantasy points) (6 carries, 24 yards)
  • Week 3. vs. Buffalo: 19 carries, 83 yards, 2 touchdowns (20.3 fantasy points) (6 carries, 12 yards)
  • Week 4 vs. LA Rams: 17 carries, 83 yards (8.3 fantasy points) (6 carries, 28 yards)
  • Week 5 vs. San Francisco: 27 carries, 157 yards, 2 touchdowns (27.7 fantasy points) (6 carries, 15 yards)
  • Week 6 vs. New York Jets: 22 carries, 111 yards, 3 touchdowns (29.1 fantasy points) (6 carries, 9 yards)
Several of these six-carry samples came within his first 10-12 touches. Again, I did not pick the smallest gains from different points in the game and add them together; I simply choose six consecutive touches to arrive at the samples.  
 
While Johnson is a superior receiver to Peterson and we won't see a rate of production from Peterson that looks like Johnson's 879-yard, and 4-touchdown pace last year, the possibility of Peterson upgrading the Cardinals to fit what it wanted to do all along on the ground isn't as desperate as it appears. 
 
It's also notable that the Cardinals were committed to the run in the red zone. Although Johnson had 4 receiving touchdowns, 17 of his 20 total TDs came in the red zone last year, and he scored 16 times as a runner. 
 

Lingering questions and fantasy outlook for Peterson 

Although the ageists will cite past history that tries to correlate others backs to Peterson, I can't give much weight to the notion based on what I've seen on tape. The burst, agility, and strength are still there; the commitment to use him has not. 
 
The only age-related argument I'll buy is the idea that he may no longer have the stamina or the fast recovery time of even his recent youth to handle a large volume and remain as strong, quick, and agile after 4-5 weeks of heavy workloads. I'll buy that possibility. However, Frank Gore, Fred Jackson, Curtis Martin, Ricky Williams, and other runners who lacked Peterson's freakish recovery skills have all performed well at or near Peterson's current age.
 
The bigger question is the quality of the Cardinals line. Based on the argument that I could pose above, there's a valid point that the Cardinals could be more effective running the ball if it had a back who fit its scheme. Before Peterson came along, it didn't have a back who could replace Johnson as a runner it could commit to the relentless pounding of a defense where it only earns 15-20 yards in 6-carry stretches but understands those big plays would come on the ground (and through the air) because of that dirty work.
 
I'm concerned about the loss of Iupati the most. However, one of the most important facets of line play is continuity. This also extends to the relationship between the runner, line, and scheme. Conceptually it's a good fit, so I think Peterson's acclimation will be fast. 
 
The greatest concern will be how much Peterson can function on passing downs. He's a better receiver than credited, but he's not the guy you'll split wide or to the slot. How fast he picks up protections and learns his routes will also factor into how much substitution the Cardinals do. If Peterson succeeds here, the offense will be less predictable based on personnel substitutions. 
 
I think it's safe to expect RB3 production the rest of the way from Peterson. He's a high-priority waiver-wire addition if he's been cut. In fact, if Javorius Allen can be an RB2 in standard formats, I think Peterson is also an equally safe bet as a mid-range RB2. 
 
If he can pick up protections and not require frequent substitution after the first 2-3 weeks and Humphries returns to full health, we will see Peterson earn 18-22 touches per game. At this point, it's not such a stretch that he can return to RB1 productivity as those six-carry box score snippets suggest.
 
If I'm right about this RB1-RB3 starter range, it will be due to the Cardinals committing to him in a way no spread team could.