Even as Adrian Peterson visits Saints, the Patriots remain in play

Charles RobinsonNFL columnist
Yahoo Sports

With starting opportunities dwindling, Adrian Peterson’s free-agent hopes have settled into a hardened reality, one where his biggest problems are scheme and opportunity – not money.

Now, with a free-agent visit to the New Orleans Saints on deck next week, the pressing question of which NFL team makes sense is becoming far more obvious.

Basically, remove all of the shotgun-heavy teams. That alone will keep the New England Patriots in the picture as long as LeGarrette Blount remains unsigned. And it will open up meet-and-greet opportunities with franchises like New Orleans.

Adrian Peterson is scheduled to visit the Saints next week. (AP)
Adrian Peterson is scheduled to visit the Saints next week. (AP)

Peterson is a running back coming to grips with an NFL that sees him as a player who has limited use in a majority of shotgun-heavy offenses. While speculation surrounding his snail-paced free agency have ranged from injuries to salary to off-field issues, two executives who spoke to Yahoo Sports last week hung Peterson’s lingering unemployment on one overriding issue: His strengths in single-back or I-formations don’t fit a wide variety of NFL offenses anymore.

The bottom line: Some (and arguably many) franchises are looking at Peterson as a lower-volume player in their schemes.

“He’s really a two-down [running back]. If you’re in [shotgun] a lot, it’s just not working,” one NFL evaluator told Yahoo Sports. “The [film] over the last 12 games really isn’t consistently good. His running between tackles hasn’t been good. …

“The first [hurdle] is, ‘Are we under center enough?’ or ‘Are we going to commit to him enough on first and second down to make it worth it?’ That’s before even getting to the age and injuries and everything else.”

That wariness may be why other teams have declined to get serious with Peterson up to this point, including almost all of his favored destinations. That group includes franchises like the New York Giants, Oakland Raiders and Seattle Seahawks. All of those ran offenses featuring shotgun formations around 70 percent of the time last season. So unless something changes schematically, Peterson’s ideal “under center” snap opportunities may be somewhere around only the 30 percent mark for each of those destinations. And offensive players whose “best case” utilization falls around 30 percent of the snap count are usually far down the list of priorities. They’re also typically extremely cheap.

This means the Patriots can’t be discounted, even after Peterson worked out in New England and left without a deal. While the franchise hasn’t shed much light on where Peterson stands on its list of priorities, one thing is crystal clear: The Patriots aren’t going to pay a big back of Peterson’s age and mileage (or maybe any age or mileage) $4 million a season. If and when Peterson’s price comes down, the Patriots could still be in play, so long as Blount remains unsigned.

In a way, New England remains the most sensible fit. The Patriots featured a big back in Blount and ran about 54 percent of the offense through the shotgun last season. So the opportunity is there for Peterson’s skills. He could easily go to New England and still manage 250 carries next season without upsetting the situational rotation that head coach Bill Belichick likes to employ. Indeed, Blount notched 299 carries last season despite starting only eight of his 16 games.

There are, however, a variety of factors that make a Peterson marriage challenging for New England. He has never played in a situational rotation similar to what the team employs, which begs questions about how he would embrace the ebb and flow of carries. The Patriots also place a premium on backs who can be top-end pass-blockers, and that’s not something Peterson has been leaned on to do heavily in the past. And again, there’s the reality of price. The Patriots aren’t looking to pay much, which is why contract talks with Blount have been slow. But the longer this goes, the cheaper Peterson gets. And if Peterson’s free agency lasts past the draft later this month, New England could likely get him for a bargain basement deal.

LeGarrette Blount may play a big role in deciding where fellow running back Adrian Peterson ends up this offseason. (AP)
LeGarrette Blount may play a big role in deciding where fellow running back Adrian Peterson ends up this offseason. (AP)

But not before the Saints and maybe a few others get a look first. Like the Patriots, the Saints are a more solid scheme fit for Peterson than most. New Orleans ran about only 54 percent of the offense out of the shotgun last season, putting the franchise more squarely into Peterson’s wheelhouse for carries. The Saints also split 338 snaps between a pair of bigger backs last season – Mark Ingram and Tim Hightower – leaning on Ingram’s pass-catching ability to provide added versatility.

There is one overriding oddity with the Saints taking a look at Peterson: With Ingram still in place, Peterson’s signing would seem more suited for the second-fiddle role that Hightower filled, which is not the role that Peterson has been seeking up to this point. He wants to be a clear primary back, and pairing him with Ingram would make that a challenge.

That makes the Saints look more like a window shopper than a realistic suitor. Much like the Patriots, the Saints aren’t in any hurry to add a player like Peterson. And they could be angling for a cheap buy after the draft. Either way, given Ingram’s $5.2 million salary cap number and solid performance as a centerpiece last season, it seems unlikely the Saints would want to reduce or significantly alter his role in the offense. It’s more likely that this Saints visit comes and goes next week and the team falls into the wait-and-see category along with New England.

In the end, where Peterson lands may ultimately come down to what he’s willing to surrender. If he swallows his pride and takes less money, his pursuit could get more serious. If he doesn’t, then his necessity to remain a centerpiece back and stick to a more traditional offense will likely force him to wait until after the draft to find a match. And again, if Blount isn’t back in a New England uniform at that point, the Patriots would have to seriously consider a value buy.

At least one thing is clear now that wasn’t a month ago: A majority of the NFL has moved beyond the type of offense that suits Peterson’s skills. And the few that haven’t – like New England – are going to be looking to pay far less than what Peterson expected. At some point and at some time, something has to give. But that moment probably won’t be next week in New Orleans.

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