Adrian Peterson once signed a contract that consistently for years, even against a rising cap, saw him account for, on average, greater than 10 percent of the Minnesota Vikings’ salary cap. The contract that he signed took place before he had his 2000-yard season.
At the moment, Le’Veon Bell’s franchise tag value represents about 8.2 percent of the 2018 salary cap of $177.2 million. Rudimentary math would tell you that 10 percent of this year’s salary cap would be $17.72 million per season.
It’s worth laying out some of this math because of the fact that Peterson’s contract has become a touchstone surrounding conversations about Bell and his contract demands as he looks to negotiate a long-term deal with the Pittsburgh Steelers. The theory goes that Peterson’s contract ought to be a deterrent from signing running backs (and many other players, but especially running backs) to such large contracts.
Considering the fact that Bell’s ballpark figure is already a smaller percentage of Peterson’s salary cap hit (even as it expanded year to year, his cap hit remained proportionally elevated, and was 10.9 percent of the cap as recently as 2015), we already must understand the perspective in which we speak.
My intention isn’t to qualitatively compare Peterson and Bell to make the argument that Bell is a better player, but there are points to be made, many of which Bell already made himself. Comparing the completeness of the skill sets of each, for example, it’s no contest who wins there.
Even during his 2000-yard season in 2012, Peterson in all 16 games only played roughly 75 percent of the Vikings’ offensive snaps. why? Because he was not very trusted on third downs and obvious passing situations, so other running backs spent nearly as much time on the field in those situations as he did.
Peterson has been in the NFL for 11 seasons and has amassed 2015 receiving yards in his career on 252 receptions with five touchdowns. Bell in five seasons and less than half as many games has caught 312 passes for 2660 yards and seven touchdowns.
Peterson may be the better pure runner—I don’t think that point can be fairly argued—but Bell as a football player is more productive than Peterson has been. For their careers, prorated over full 16-game seasons, Peterson would have averaged 1865 yards per season in his first six seasons, which runs up to his 2000-yard season and by far his highest yardage total. During his five-year career, Bell’s prorated 16-game totals would average 2063 yards per season. He would also fumble a lot less.
Many point out that the Vikings soured on Peterson’s contract toward the end but don’t really mention the fact that much of that had to do with the fact that he was indicted for beating his child with a switch and spent all but one game of the 2014 season suspended.
The idea of giving a seven-year contract to a running back with several seasons already under his belt is also absurd on the face of it, and based on last year’s negotiations, that is not what the Steelers have in mind. They reportedly offered Bell a five-year contract in 2017. Perhaps now they are looking at a four-year contract.
Put simply, I don’t think that the Adrian Peterson contract is the cautionary tale that many are viewing it as. He certainly produced. Even factoring in his suspended season, during the first five years of his deal, he averaged over 1300 yards from scrimmage with 10 scores while playing 12 games per season. Factor out the year in which he only played one game and that looks much better, too.
The Vikings failed for many reasons during that time period, but it wasn’t because they were hooked to Peterson. The drafting of Christian Ponder and the subsequent delusion that Matt Cassel might be good was far more damaging to their ability to contend, and they had some of the worst scoring defenses during that time as well. Cordarrelle Paterson was another miss, and then they traded Percy Harvin. Put him around a group like the Vikings have now and you have a totally different story. They have plenty of cap space.