EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Putting together one of the most remarkable seasons for a running back in NFL history, Minnesota Vikings’ star Adrian Peterson is rightfully gaining attention nationwide as a possible MVP candidate.
Peterson’s legend grows with every 50-plus yard run, every 100-yard rushing game. Meanwhile, one of the big reasons Peterson could become just the seventh player in league history to run for 2,000 yards quietly goes about his business, content and proud in what he’s helping Peterson to accomplish.
Fullback Jerome Felton receives very little fanfare, even locally, as the lead blocker in the league’s third-ranked rushing attack. Felton won’t gain notoriety from his statistical line — zero rushes this season, two catches – but as Peterson blows through defensive fronts loaded up to stop him, it’s often Felton getting the initial punch to set Peterson free.
“They brought me in here to, like I said, make life a little easier on him, and I like to say I’m doing that,” Felton said Monday, after helping Peterson to his seventh straight 100-yard rushing game in Sunday’s 21-14 win against the Chicago Bears. “He gives me an opportunity to show what I can do to the league and hopefully vice-versa, I make life a little easier on him. Definitely a lot of pride in that.”
According to Pro Football Focus’ grades this season, Felton is the second-best blocking fullback in the league this year, only behind Baltimore’s Vonta Leach, who’s been a Pro Bowler and first-team All-Pro the last two seasons.
Felton’s impact on the Vikings has been mostly under-the-radar from the very beginning, the only bump in the road being an arrest for driving under the influence in June. But he’s been quiet off the field and a steady performer on it since, and is doing just what he imagined when signing in Minnesota.
“I remember when I was sitting in Detroit, we always had tough games against Minnesota and I used to watch when Minnesota’s offense was on the field and I was like, ‘Man, if I could ever team up with (Peterson), I think it could be something special,'” Felton said. “That was a big thing. Just to have the opportunity to come here and be able to block for him, he’s obviously a future Hall of Famer. That was something special and something I was obviously very interested in doing.”
Minnesota left many fans dismayed when it wasn’t aggressive last summer in free agency; only signing backup tight end John Carlson to a multi-year, big-money deal. There were one-year deals passed out to offensive lineman Geoff Schwartz and receiver Jerome Simpson. They even had made a deal with backup running back/fullback Lex Hilliard before getting Felton to sign.
Felton, signed to just a one-year contract himself, has made the biggest impact.
“Jerome at the fullback position is an unsung hero,” coach Leslie Frazier said. “We’re playing a lot more two-back than we played a season ago and it’s really helped us. We went into this offseason saying that we wanted to be able to find a fullback to really be a lead blocker for Adrian because we felt like some of his best runs have come when he has a lead blocker.”
And there’s the rub. Peterson does prefer to run out of single-back sets, re-stating his position just two weeks ago.
“My preference is to be back there by myself,” Peterson said on Nov. 29. “But we’ve had some good plays with the fullback in there, whether it’s pushing him to the safety and clearing him through, but I’m comfortable either way.”
With good reason. Take Peterson’s first touchdown on Sunday, Felton was first into the hole created by the offensive line and obliterated Chicago safety Major Wright, opening a simple lane for Peterson. Or look at Peterson’s career-long 82-yard touchdown run the previous week when Felton took out linebacker A.J. Hawk to spring Peterson, who did the rest of the work himself.
“(Adrian) might differ with (being better with a fullback), but you put the tape on and you see that that’s true,” Frazier said. “Jerome has done a terrific job of doing everything we’ve asked him to do as a lead blocker. He’s had a lot to do with the success we’ve had running the football.”
And Felton hopes, in some ways, he could be changing Peterson’s mind about wanting a fullback in front of him.
“I’d like to think so,” Felton said. “One thing with Adrian and I think all great running backs, they like what works. As the season has developed, he’s gotten more comfortable with it. I think he’s enjoyed it more and obviously I enjoy it a lot. He can run in any system, he’s going to be a great back regardless, but all I’m trying to do is make life a little bit easier on him.”
In the meantime, Felton might just be earning himself a new contract and the security that would come with it. Felton signed a contract that paid him $700,000 in base salary this season after bouncing between two teams last year.
Originally a fifth-round draft choice by the Lions, he felt he had established himself with Detroit in his first three seasons but was waived early last season and claimed by Carolina when Minnesota tried to claim him. He lasted nine games with the Panthers before being waived and claimed by Indianapolis.
Now, he’s happy in Minnesota and says he’d like to stay with the Vikings.
“Obviously last year was a tough year for me, kind of being in an offense that really didn’t use a fullback,” Felton said. “It’s all about the timing of the situation, being in the right place at the right time. I feel like this is the right place. It would definitely mean a lot to me.”