With Adrian Peterson Out, What Should We Expect From the Minnesota Vikings Running Backs?

Adrian Peterson is battling off-the-field issues, so how should fantasy owners be handling the situation?

Here at numberFire, “number” is literally in our name. We’re known for in-depth analysis of statistics and metrics that go beyond players’ box score tallies, and startlingly accurate metric descriptions of the action that occurs on the field.

More important than any other numbers right now, though, is the number two, as in two seconds. We’re going to investigate the other Vikings running backs in the wake of Adrian Peterson's suspension/exemption, but it seems irresponsible to discuss the fantasy implications without taking two seconds to reflect on the social context. This lead-in isn’t going to be funny, like most of mine usually attempt to be; it's going to be short and to the point. There's not a lot to be said on the topic that hasn't been said before, so consider these few paragraphs my moment of non-silence on the issue of violence in all its myriad forms.

One. Two. There we go.

And now for a clever, jarring tie-in back from serious issues: Though human and fallible in many aspects, Peterson has shown superhuman physical ability in his whole career, from nearly breaking the single-season rushing record, to returning from fully-torn ACL and MCL’s in his left knee in less than nine months. If he’s suspended for any significant period of time, his backups won’t be able to match his level of production, but can the next men up keep the Vikings run game afloat in case of emergency?

Replacement Level Means Something More Here

There’s no denying the unparalleled dominance of Adrian Peterson in the NFL in recent years. There’s very little remembrance of the side of the player who fumbled a combined 19 times over the course of his first three seasons, and much more of the side that has racked up an average of 114.47 yards and nearly a touchdown per game. And this comes with good reason; despite an immense lack of ball security early in his career, Peterson has done extraordinarily well in our Net Expected Points (NEP) metrics for his whole career.

NEP is a measure of a player’s actual contribution to his team’s success, measured in expected points gained or lost, which describes the effect a player has on his team’s chances of scoring on any given drive. You can read more about NEP in our glossary.

The table below shows Peterson’s production in Rushing NEP (expected points gained solely on rushes) and Reception NEP (expected points gained on any play resulting in a reception) as well as his ranks in these metrics among running backs with 200 or more carries each season.

YearRushing NEPRankReception NEPRankTotal NEPRank

Aside from his major fumbling seasons in 2008 and 2009, Peterson has checked in as a top-10 back in Total NEP every season of his career. This is largely due to his exceptionally consistent Rushing NEP, which has ranked 11th or higher in the league every year except for one. Much of this is due to volume, as the Vikings have run an average of 475 rushing plays per season since Peterson entered the league, and have had a pass-to-run ratio below 1.27 each year from 2007 to 2012.

If Peterson is unable to play for any reason, how will the Vikings recoup this kind of production and volume?

Plan B

The first option is to go to the backups straight away: plug and play. Would rookie Jerick McKinnon and Matt Asiata be able to recoup this kind of value lost with Peterson? The table below shows Asiata and McKinnon’s career contributions in Rushing and Reception NEP (note: 2014 production is only through Week 2).

YearPlayerRush NEPRec NEPTotal NEP
2012Matt Asiata-1.43-0.57-2.00
2013Matt Asiata-2.410.57-1.84
2014Matt Asiata-1.072.901.83
2014Jerick McKinnon-0.65-0.61-1.26

We know the talent gap is large here, but it’s startling just how large. Between these two players, they have a combined 65 rushing attempts and 14 receptions. On these 79 touches, they have accumulated a Total NEP of -3.27. Extrapolate that out to 350 touches – Peterson’s annual average – and you have a backfield worth -14.49 Total NEP, which would have been good for just 20th among all running backs with at least 200 rushes last year.

Now, that’s merely hypothetical. If this six-time Pro Bowl running back were to be unable to play, the team would almost certainly run less; no offensive coordinator invests that kind of volume in lesser players than superstars. Yet, perhaps this is a good thing for the Vikings. You’ll notice from the above table that the values in Reception NEP are often higher than those in Rushing NEP, despite the rankings being the opposite. Due to a greater efficiency that the receiving game has over running plays, one can move down the field quicker and more efficiently. This means that a shift to a more passing-centric offense may sustain value even if they lose value in the run game.

Asiata has proven to be acceptable (though certainly not good) in the receiving game thus far in his career, with 2.90 Reception NEP on 17 targets, for a per-target rate of 0.17. This is significantly lower than Peterson’s, but he isn’t completely useless as a receiver. McKinnon is still a raw product, so it remains to be seen if he could pick up enough on the receiving end to make a difference. It should be noted, however, that one of McKinnon's top comparables is Adrian Peterson.

But really, the whole point here is that there’s some glimmer of hope, but if these two are your backfield, you’re in serious trouble.

Backing Down

Peterson is an irreplaceable talent in this offense. Behind an offensive line that ranked in the top-five per in run blocking in 2013, he is even more dangerous on the field. Put anyone with lesser talent in that role and there is still some sneaky fantasy value, but not much. Lesser parts will mean a lesser product. The likely result of a Peterson suspension, as we saw in the difference between Week 1 and Week 2’s pass-to-run ratios (0.87 and 2.21, respectively), will be a heavier emphasis on the passing game.

If this happens, expect the receivers in this offense to get a significant boost, especially in PPR formats. I also wouldn’t be surprised to see receiver Cordarrelle Patterson utilized even more heavily in the run game if the Vikings trot out Matt Asiata and Jerick McKinnon as lead backs. Patterson already has 8.03 Rushing NEP in 2014 on just three attempts, leading the team.

This whole situation is ugly on so many fronts; I’m avoiding the Vikings backfield for both fantasy and moral reasons. I’d advise you to do the same.