Last week, against Seattle, I think everybody in the Vikings Territory writers room perked their ears up when a first quarter pass doinked off the hands of Jerick McKinnon and fell incomplete. Why? Well, let’s just say an argument about whether or not Adrian Peterson is actually “one-dimensional” had just taken place, so McKinnon’s miscue made for easy fodder for one side of that fight to use as ammo.
Of course, any “fights” our writers have are in the spirit of good fun and further understanding of this team we all love. This one got a little tense, I won’t lie, but that had more to do with my choice of the words – “lazy group-think narrative” – than anything else.
So, yes, there it is. Half the cat is out of the bag. I believe that Adrian Peterson is not nearly as one-dimensional as everybody else believes he is.
I’ve been doing this long enough to fully realize that no single statistic, or even a group of statistics, can ever tell the whole story. Still, for a guy who scored his first NFL touchdown on a reception (and long run after the bobbled catch) the opinion of his pass catching abilities seems to be at an all-time low, despite the fact that he’s coming off of his most efficient season in that category.
I think the best statistics when it comes to pass catching are catch percentage and drops. Using those two items can help tell the story of how often a player finds success as a route running pass catcher, while also illustrating how often the failures are the result of their own hands.
In June of 2014 (before Peterson’s suspension), Aj Mansour of KFAN attempted to compare and contrast Peterson with other backs using the catch percentage statistic, which he ended by noting that while Peterson isn’t as dominant in this area as he is as a rusher, that he wasn’t completely incapable. He wondered how Peterson would fare in his first season with Norv Turner as offensive coordinator and Mattt Cassel or Teddy Bridgewater at quarterback.
Of course, that 2014 season was cut way short by Peterson’s suspension, but we do now have a full season of data to work with under such circumstances and fans may be surprised to see how Peterson stacks up against his own teammates in the pass catching category.
(NOTE: Statistics from SportingCharts.com)
|Player||Targets||Drops||Catch %||Drop %|
As you may have noted, Peterson received the most pass targets of any Vikings running back, had the lowest drop percentage, and only Matt Asiata had a greater success rate. Peterson averaged 8.33 yards gained after the catch, meaning he even outproduced the popular pass catching back Jerick McKinnon, who had an average gain of 7.38 yards after the catch.
(NOTE: YAC stats from ESPN.)
That isn’t to say, however, that Peterson has historically been a great pass catcher. He has not, at least not consistently, and those are not unfounded perceptions.
In 2008, Peterson had his worst season as a pass catcher, according to statistics compiled by Pro Football Reference. He had an awful success rate of only 53.8% that season. A year later, with Brett Favre at the helm, Peterson had his most productive season as a pass catcher with a reasonable success rate of 75.4% on a career-high 57 targets. He also had a career best of 436 receiving yards that season.
Overall, Peterson’s season totals as a pass-catcher have been inconsistent, but I still don’t see a level of incompetence in this area to support calling him one-dimensional. I also don’t see why 2015’s jump in efficiency isn’t potentially a legitimate sign that Norv Turner taught his old dog some new tricks.
The idea that Peterson is improving in the pass catching area is further supported by evidence that he is actually getting better at the catching portion of that. He has only had two drops in 79 targets since the start of the 2013 season (remember, he only played one game in 2014). He had five drops on 74 targets during the 2011 and 2012 seasons.
From 2008 to 2010, Peterson led running backs in the drops category despite his productivity in the Favre years, so I’m fairly certain this could be considered another trend displaying potential growth.
When looking at running backs with more than 30 targets in 2015, only a handful had a better catch percentage than Peterson did (via Pro Football Reference): Melvin Gordon, DeAngelo Williams, and Jonathan Grimes.
Backs that are traditionally thought of as more “complete” backs than Peterson, but had lesser efficiency in that category in 2015, included: Lamar Miller, DeMarco Murray, Latavius Murray, C.J. Spiller, Jonathan Stewart, Devonta Freeman, and many others.
(Note: Below statistics from Pro-Football-Reference.com)
His career catch percentage of 72.6% puts him in some pretty good company when it comes to modern era “complete” backs, actually. Peterson currently finds himself sandwiched somewhere in the neighborhood of LaDainian Tomlinson (71.9%) and Chris Johnson (72.4%) which is not horrible company to be in by any means.
Peterson’s one-dimensional label hasn’t just been brought on by the perception that he is a terrible pass catcher, however. It also has do with his pass blocking and there is no denying that he offers as little as any of the NFL’s premier backs in this category. Peterson ranked almost at the very bottom of all graded running backs in pass blocking by Pro Football Focus in 2015. This has been consistent, too, in PFF’s grading throughout Peterson’s career where they consider him to be doing little more than “floundering” about.
Peterson’s fumbling issues are yet another detractor that have been on every fan’s mind since the 2009 NFC Championship Game following the 2009 season. Those fumbling issues have spawned a great number of offseason articles since then, but up until 2015 Peterson has largely been able to make good on his vows to secure the ball better.
In regular season action, Peterson has fumbled the football 38 times and lost 22 of those since entering the league. Only 29% of his career fumbles came during the 2010-2014 seasons in which he played 48% of his career games in the NFL (and made 48% of his career rushing attempts).
Still, last year upon returning from his suspension, the fumbling habits he had appeared to bury in the past reappeared and he put the ball on the ground seven times during the regular season. That is in addition to one very harmful fumble in the team’s playoff loss to Seattle which actually came after Peterson successfully caught a pass.
It has been an underrated storyline, however, that Peterson has indeed put in extra ball security work this offseason. As reported by Ben Goessling of ESPN, Peterson has renewed his vows that once appeared to have worked when it comes to hanging onto the football, and has made it an emphasis in his training. That makes this another opportunity to yet again prove his doubters wrong, as he has done many times throughout his career in a variety of ways.
As noted by our Adam Patrick earlier this week, Peterson is also “working hard” (in the words of Mike Zimmer) to become more proficient at running patiently out of the shotgun formation, a weakness that plagued Peterson’s 2015 production with Teddy Bridgewater at the helm.
Up until this point in his career, the start of a season with incredibly high expectations for this Vikings team, Peterson has been highly inconsistent in numerous aspects of his game. Whether or not “one-dimensional” is a truly fair assessment greatly depends on the level of tolerance observers and fans have for such inconsistencies.
Peterson plans to sit out the preseason entirely again this year, so any improvements won’t be seen until the regular season gets underway in Tennessee next month. Whether or not that portrayed work ethic pays off, and Peterson returns as a more complete back, will be a major storyline early in the 2016 action.
Given the modest success he found as a pass catcher last year, and his stated desire to improve in other areas this year, I am willing to predict that Peterson proves his doubters wrong and has one of the better all-around seasons of his career.
As someone that has foolishly bet against Adrian Peterson’s ability to improve in the past, I’m not sure how I could doubt the guy again.