What Should Trading for Adrian Peterson Actually Cost?
Adrian Peterson will be playing football in 2015. That much we know.
What continues to be uncertain is exactly where Adrian Peterson will play.
His current team, the Minnesota Vikings, have publicly stated they are excited for their star running back to continue his professional career with the franchise. Peterson, reportedly, is less enthused with that idea.
Potential trades for AP have been hot topics for much of the offseason, this site included. Whether a trade is imminent or not, there will be a number of obstacles to overcome before one can be finalized.
You see, there’s not just one thing holding back any potential trade. What could make a trade difficult to execute is that there’s a very small middle section in the venn diagram representing the interests of the three potential parties involved. The Vikings, rightly so, would want to maximize the return for arguably the team’s best player and an NFL MVP just two seasons ago. Peterson wants to add as much guaranteed money as possible to what’s likely to be the last big contract in the latter years of his career. And the team trading for Peterson would want to give up fair value, not overpaying for a running back entering the wrong side of 30.
So let’s start there. There are plenty of articles floating around the Internet about what trading for Adrian Peterson might cost. But how about what trading for Adrian Peterson should cost? There’s a value that can be placed there, and we can try to place it.
Before a team decides what they're willing to give up in order to acquire Peterson, they must first figure out what exactly they'll be acquiring. There’s little doubt that Peterson is one of the best backs we've ever seen on a football field. Our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric would agree. NEP measures the value of each play on the field based on how an average player would be expected to score in each scenario using historical data -- it helps show how a player performs versus how he's expected to perform. Adrian Peterson likes performing above expectation.
Since coming into the league in 2007 through 2013, Peterson has finished among the top-10 running backs in Rushing NEP five times among backs with at least 200 carries. The high-volume aspect is important because running the ball is far less efficient than passing, and a few big runs for backs with less volume could make them appear super efficient.
One of those seasons included his league-leading 36.31 Rushing NEP (2012), just months after tearing his ACL. During that campaign, Peterson had 0.10 Rushing NEP per attempt, which was second highest in the league behind C.J. Spiller at 0.12.
With all of this being said, Peterson just turned 30 years old at the end of March, placing him in dangerous position along the running back age curve. The age curve, though, might mean less to running backs like Peterson. When Joe Redemann looked at the career arc of running backs, he found running backs can typically sustain some normal form of production in their age-30 season and shortly after. The production isn’t like the prime seasons in the early 20s, but backs talented enough to even reach an age-30 season appear to be able to string along some value post-30.
While that could be seen as a positive for Peterson, age might not be the best indicator for a decline in production. Our own Joe Juan took a look at how a running back’s career carries effects production and found there is a drop-off point around 1,800 carries. Coincidentally, Peterson just reached that point during his last full season in 2013.
Peterson only played one game last season, and it wasn’t one to offer any type of promise that a decline isn’t on the horizon. We don’t want to jump to any conclusions of a one-game sample, and we shouldn’t assume Peterson would have stayed at a Donald Brown-esque -0.21 Rushing NEP per attempt all season. But all this does is add uncertainty to what he could bring to the field in 2015.
The Cost to Acquire
Any trade offer is about 99 percent certain to have draft pick compensation, leaving a little less than two weeks on a potential timeline. While LeSean McCoy for Kiko Alonso-type trades are fun, they’re the very small minority in the world of NFL trades.
Minnesota could start by asking for a first-round pick in exchange for Peterson, but that’s an asking price even Jerry Jones would think is too high. Backs like Peterson -- good, but old -- just don't get traded very often, and the last running back to get traded for a first-round pick was Trent Richardson. Peterson has a much longer track record of success, but teams could still be wary of parting with that type of compensation for a running back, especially at Peterson's age and price.
A second-round pick might need to be the draft compensation, just by default. The team Peterson still has the most value for could be the Vikings, and letting him go for a third-round pick could be selling too low when Minnesota still holds most of, if not all, the leverage.
Draft compensation can be tricky, because the return on investment is not always a sure thing. This is a fairly deep draft class at running back, but there’s no guarantee those backs will reach expectations on the field. Over the past 10 years, second-round picks have been just about 50-50 in terms of hitting. A team would have to think they have a greater than 50 percent chance of getting a productive Peterson for that type of draft capital. And in Juan’s carry rate study referenced earlier, it showed running backs averaged a nearly 800 percent decrease in NEP the season after hitting the 1,800 carry mark. That’s crazy and we can even safely assume Peterson, even in decline, is not the average back.
That brings us back to what type of production Peterson might have going forward. It could be argued there's the possibility Peterson could be more rested than the typical 1,800-plus carry back after basically resting his body for a year, potentially slowing his decline phase. Regardless the pace of his decline, it's hard to project Peterson as a top back in the league. But, at the same time, what's remaining on Peterson's contract pays him as the top back in the league, by a fairly wide margin.
And over the past few seasons, the top running back in the league has produced at least 20.00 Rushing NEP. Peterson has only done that once, in his stellar 2012 MVP season. If prime AP hasn't even reached those levels, how could a team feel comfortable paying a 30-year-old back to accomplish the feat?
So, in essence, the contract situation would need to be addressed if any trade were to occur. There's still three years and $47.4 million left on his current deal, however none of the remaining money is guaranteed. And Peterson’s $15.4 million cap hit for 2015 is the only one for a running back over $10 million -- Matt Forte is second with a $9.2 million cap hit, and Forte is the only other back over $9 million. Even at top form, Peterson isn’t roughly 67 percent better than Forte, if you want to think of it that way.
A contract for the upside of Peterson’s current ability might need to be more along the lines of LeSean McCoy or DeMarco Murray. Even that’s not a great sign, because both of those contracts were widely viewed as overpays this offseason. Both McCoy and Murray have put together top-10 seasons by Rushing NEP within the past two years, but do not have the length of Peterson's track record. But both backs have yet to hit 30 years of age, which does add some value.
If a new team can work Peterson’s contract down to $8 million a year -- likely by guaranteeing some of the up front payments -- getting the Vikings to eat some money by converting some of this year’s salary to a signing bonus and spreading out the total cost over an extra year on the deal could be closer to the market value of Peterson’s actual production. That’s probably as favorable as a deal could get for an acquiring team, and probably at the minimum Peterson and his agent would find acceptable if done correctly.
What’s most likely to happen is the team that trades for Peterson -- if a trade occurs -- will still view him as one of the top backs in the league. Peterson should be worth no more than a second-round pick though, as well as a contract that pays him about $8 million per year. It’s going to be an overpay -- paying for name value over what Peterson is likely to provide on the field over the next few seasons. The amount of work needed to create equal value in trading for Peterson makes not trading for Peterson look like the much better option.