Don’t get me wrong. Few things in the NFL are more enjoyable than watching the Vikings’ Adrian Peterson run with the football. The man has speed, moves, strength – he’s electric.
But let’s set aside his highlight reel for a moment. Let’s forget about his Fantasy League value and his studly performance in Madden. Let’s focus instead on his Actual Productivity. After all, if your peers rank you the No. 3 player in the league, right behind Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, you should put up some pretty impressive numbers, right?
And in some categories, obviously, Peterson scores high. For instance, his 5,782 rushing yards are the sixth-highest total by an NFL back in his first four seasons.
I’ll just point out, though, that Clinton Portis rushed for 5,930 in his first four seasons with the Broncos and Redskins.
Peterson also puts the ball in the end zone. His 54 touchdowns are the ninth-highest total by a back in his first four years.
I’ll just point out, though, that Maurice Jones-Drew had 56 in his first four years with the Jaguars (counting two kickoff-return TDs).
Another point I could make: Peterson doesn’t break as many long touchdown runs as he used to. Little-known fact: He’s scored eight TDs of 50 yards or longer in his career, but half of them came in his first eight games as a pro (60, 67, 73, 64). In the last two seasons, 14 of his 31 TDs have been 1-yard runs.
Then there’s Peterson’s annoying habit of coughing up the ball. He’s fumbled 21 times in his first four seasons. Only four backs in the last two decades have dropped it more in Years 1 through 4: Ricky Williams (27), Jamal Lewis (24), Travis Henry (23) and Terry Allen (22).
Where Peterson really comes up short, though, is in the yards-from-scrimmage department. He just doesn’t catch as many passes as other top backs. One season (2008), he had only 125 yards receiving. Heck, Marshall Faulk once had 204 in a game. And let’s face it, in today’s NFL, pass-happy as it is, a back is expected to be a two-way threat. For whatever reason, though, AP – as a receiver, at least – hasn’t been all that threatening.
Peterson’s biggest year for yards from scrimmage was ’08, when he had 1,885. For the record, this is only the 82nd-highest total for a back in league history. And get this: In terms of yards-per-game average (117.8), it ranks even lower than that – 105th. Does it strike anybody else as odd that the No. 3 player in the NFL (and No. 1 running back) doesn’t have one of the top, oh, 75 yards-from-scrimmage seasons of all time? (I know he’s still young – 26 – but the Texans’ Arian Foster has already cracked the top 20, and he’s even younger.)
Here are the backs – all 45 of them – who have gained more yards from scrimmage in a season than Peterson has: Walter Payton (5 times), Eric Dickerson (4), Marshall Faulk (4), LaDainian Tomlinson (4), Tiki Barber (4), Barry Sanders (3), Emmitt Smith (3), Thurman Thomas (3), Edgerrin James (3), Priest Holmes (3), O.J. Simpson (2), Wilbert Montgomery (2), Billy Sims (2), Marcus Allen (2), William Andrews (2), Roger Craig (2), Terrell Davis (2), Ahman Green (2), Larry Johnson (2), Brian Westbrook (2), Chris Johnson, Steven Jackson, Jamal Lewis, James Wilder, Arian Foster, Ricky Williams, Frank Gore, Jamal Anderson, Deuce McAllister, Jim Brown, Garrison Hearst, Ray Rice, Barry Foster, Herschel Walker, Gerald Riggs, Earl Campbell, Tony Dorsett, Eddie George, Shaun Alexander, Curtis Martin, Fred Taylor, Jamaal Charles, Ottis Anderson, Clinton Portis, Charlie Garner.
And here are nine more who averaged more yards per game in a season than Peterson did in his best year:
Lydell Mitchell (3 times), Chuck Foreman (2), Otis Armstrong, Clem Daniels, Gale Sayers, Larry Brown, Lenny Moore, John David Crow, Frank Gifford. (Yes, Frank Gifford.)
It’ll be interesting to see whether, in the seasons ahead, Peterson develops his pass-catching ability and becomes a more complete back. As I said at the beginning, I’m very much an AP fan. I just doubt seriously, in light of all this, that he’s the NFL’s third-best player (and best non-quarterback).