Per Mike Freeman at the Bleacher Report, the Vikings have been looking for ways to part with premier running back Adrian Peterson:

The Vikings are looking for ways to part with superstar runner Adrian Peterson sooner rather than later. Peterson is 29 and when backs hit 30, their production usually drops off precipitously. Backs age in dog years, and despite Peterson’s adamantium bone structure, he isn’t impervious to aging. The contract situation is also brutal. Peterson will receive a base salary of $11.75 million in 2014, then $12.75 million in 2015. In 2017, it will climb to $15.75 million.

That is simply an impossible salary structure to pay a player in today’s game, where the running back position has been greatly devalued.

“My person opinion,” said one AFC general manager, “is this (coming) season will be Peterson’s last with the Vikings. Despite the cap hit, they’ll make some sort of move to get him off the roster.”

Potshots at the Bleacher Report aside (they’re not what they were three years ago), I trust Mike Freeman, though I’ve found him slightly more prone to “lying season” than other, more reliable, insiders. That said, I think this is the truth.

 

This isn’t to say that Norv Turner doesn’t know the value of a reliable running back. LaDainian Tomlinson was a cornerstone of his offense for years. He was also released from the team when he was 30 (coming off of a 3.3 YPC, 730 yard season to be fair).

I don’t think the salary cap problem is as big as we once thought it was simply because of the rapid expansion of the salary cap. While it is always dangerous to project new cap space, I doubt the cap space in 2017 is anything under $160,000,000. His cap hit that year will be $16,000,000—or  10% in the most conservative cap estimation. He currently carries around 11%.

If he regresses by the amount that most running backs do by age, then it won’t be worth the space… but it’s also not a bloated enough contract to risk the team much. A lot of veterans carry high-value contracts in their final year as a way for teams to show good faith in future negotiations with different players—basically saying “See? We won’t just cut your contract at the end like other teams. We honor our commitments.”

There are exceptions to a lot of these rules (Chad Greenway recently restructured his contract, but it took three bad years of play first), but for the most part, that would be acceptable bloat. Moreover, Adrian Peterson’s guaranteed money, and therefore his dead cap hit, runs out after 2015. Even so, dead money is not significant. If they cut him after the 2014 season, they only incur a $2.4 million hit (and save $13,000,000 against the cap). He won’t have negotiating leverage if he does decline.

BUT MAKE NO MISTAKE—there’s real value in figuring out Adrian Peterson’s trade leverage, and importantly finding the right price to get rid of him. This story feels like it’s one that came from the NFL combine, which is significant: it is before the beginning of NFL free agency.

The reason that is important is two-fold: 1) Peterson’s trade value is higher before teams acquire running backs in FA and 2) it allows the Vikings to aggressively and realistically negotiate with Toby Gerhart a month before other teams (theoretically) get the chance. And I think (and I bet the team agrees) that Gerhart is a top-16 starting talent as a running back.

At this point, I don’t think it’s true, nor will it continue to be true unless a player like Jerick McKinnon massively improves (or Joe Banyard/Bradley Randle not just earn a spot on the roster, but are effective #2s). I think that possibility is unlikely.

I would not have minded if they had traded Peterson, signed Gerhart and drafted McKinnon (which exposes you to a lot of risk at running back, despite my confidence in Gerhart) depending on the compensation. Given Peterson’s salary, you’d think a trade would be difficult, but I’m not so sure the salary matters as much as the age and injury history—where he’s missed games in three of the last four years due to injury.

I admit, it would have been a little bit of a downer not to envision Teddy Bridgewater and Adrian Peterson on the same field, and the prospect truly is salivating, but the importance of the run game in the NFL is declining—no matter what you think you can attribute to the Seahawks’ success—and the Vikings well know that, seeing a near record-breaking performance from one of the greatest running backs of all time barely squeak into the playoffs.

If you had told me the Vikings would only have been able to get a second-round pick and some change, I would have considered it.

But the team, as it stands now, is built for stability at the running back position and does not have a lot of offensive options while their new quarterback develops. Given all the of risk on defense (something I do not view as a bad thing) for experimental players like Barr and depth over starters at corner (implying a trust in coachability) and a shift in philosophy from edge to interior pressure, this would be a poor time to trade Adrian.

I do think that running back decline is something that we’re overlooking when we talk about the value of Adrian Peterson, and I think he regresses from the best back in the country to a very good back in a short amount of time from here on out.  Theoretically, there’s at least one team out there that doesn’t think that. If you can get value for trade, then draft your favorite running back using a pick later than the one you traded (say, in the third), you’ve gained massively with an eye to the future and a lot of cap space to prepare for the wave of first-round picks the Vikings are going to have to re-sign soon.

So, were the Vikings shopping Adrian? Probably. And they probably got some decent offers despite his cap space. They decided (probably wisely) that those offers weren’t worth it, then did not pursue Gerhart in free agency, and drafted as if Peterson is going to be on the team for the next two years. I think given those things, regardless of the next draft, Peterson is baked in the cake for the Vikings for at least two years, and he won’t be a part of serious trade offers.