MVP Adrian Peterson paces Vikings’ run-first attack

This is the second in a series of 13 previews leading up to the Minnesota Vikings’ July 26 start of camp.

TODAY’S POSITION: RUNNING BACKS AND FULLBACKS

Rating (1-to-10 scale): 10

Projected starters: Adrian Peterson (seventh year), fullback Jerome Felton (sixth year)

Backups (asterisks indicate players expected to make the roster): *Matt Asiata, Joe Banyard, *Toby Gerhart, Zach Line, Bradley Randle, Jerodis Williams

The breakdown: What’s really left to say about Peterson and his 2012 season? He returned from major knee surgery in record time and almost broke a 28-year NFL record, breaking the quarterback strong-hold on the MVP award, all while — as we found out later — playing through a sports hernia. Injuries aside, Peterson had perhaps the best season in NFL history by a running back with 2,097 yards. He was eight yards shy of Eric Dickerson’s single-season record, posting the second-highest single-season total in league history. He added 40 catches for 217 yards and scored 13 touchdowns and was over 100 yards rushing in nine of the season’s final 10 weeks. He returned from torn anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments, missing only one game, to resume his standing as the NFL’s top running back.

While quarterback Christian Ponder is the most important player to Minnesota’s success, Peterson is the driving force of the team’s offense. Ponder doesn’t have to put up big numbers or take over games because Peterson is there in the backfield. The Vikings stick to their run-first philosophy, one of the last NFL teams that still choose to win with their running game and for good reason — Peterson. Peterson has said repeatedly his goal this season is to rush for 2,500 yards and he firmly believes he can get there. Peterson isn’t just interested in breaking Dickerson’s record, he wants to shatter it. Peterson has a supreme confidence in himself and works hard to put himself into position to reach his goals. After his 2012 season, it’s hard to find many doubters of Peterson.

Rightly so, Felton received recognition for his part in Peterson’s big season. He was invited to his first Pro Bowl and was a second-team All-NFL selection. Peterson had previously said he didn’t prefer to run behind a fullback, but Felton’s blocking helped spring Peterson on many of his longest runs last season and he’s a crucial part of the Vikings’ offense.

Gerhart seems like a luxury at this point for Minnesota. Gerhart was drafted in the second round in 2010 after he was the Heisman Trophy runner-up. He’s proven his worth as a backup to Peterson and even shown the ability to be a No. 1 back himself in the right situation when Peterson was injured. But he had a career-low 50 carries last season, including 22 over the final 11 weeks. The Vikings appreciate having a quality backup and Gerhart quietly goes about his business as a little-used backup and has a good relationship with Peterson. Entering the final season of his rookie contract, 2013 might be Gerhart’s last season in Minnesota as he looks for more playing time somewhere else on his next contract.

Best position battle: The final roster spot given to a running back comes down more to what the player can add on special teams. Matt Asiata won the battle last preseason over Jordan Todman and Lex Hilliard. Asiata can play running back and fullback, adding to his versatility. He even had three kick returns. But most of Asiata’s playing time came on special teams coverage units. He had four special teams tackles and recovered an onside kick.

If any of the rookies — Banyard, Line, Randle or Williams — are going to unseat Asiata, they must show the ability to contribute on special teams and maybe more promise as a back. Banyard is smaller, but speedy and finished last season on the practice squad. Williams was a Football Championship Subdivision All-American as a kick returner last season at Furman. Line, undrafted out of Southern Methodist, is intriguing because of his size (6-foot-1, 230 pounds) and his ability to run the ball (three seasons of more than 1,200 yards rushing at SMU as a fullback) and he was reportedly given the largest bonus of the team’s undrafted rookie free agents.

Ranking against the rest of the NFC North: 1. Vikings; 2. Bears; 3. Lions; 4. Packers. Another ranking where there’s no arguing who belongs at the top. Peterson is the best running back in football, has a Pro Bowl fullback and a quality backup in Gerhart. Matt Forte and Michael Bush give Chicago two quality backs that bring varying skill sets. Forte had the third 1,000-yard season of his five-year career last season and is one of the better pass-catching backs in the league, posting at least 44 catches every season of his career. Bush is a big (6-foot-2, 243 pounds) bruising runner, who’s shiftier than he appears. He also has a nose for the end zone as the Bears’ goal-line back. He provides a good change-of-pace to Forte.

Detroit signed Reggie Bush and he would appear a good fit for their pass-first offense. He’s still dangerous in space and teams will have to respect him underneath while quarterback Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson test teams deep. He also averaged more than 1,000 yards rushing a season in two years with Miami. The Lions will still try to pose a running threat with Bush and Mikel Leshoure, who ran for 798 yards (3.7 yards per carry) and nine touchdowns in his first season since being a second-round pick and Joique Bell will fight for carries.

Green Bay is attempting to completely revamp its running game, which has lacked for several seasons. The Packers drafted Alabama’s Eddie Lacy in the second round of April’s draft and UCLA’s Johnathan Franklin in the fourth round, considered two of the top backs available entering the draft. Lacy is a big, powerful runner and will likely earn the starting spot, with the speedier Franklin being the complement. The two are talented — and Green Bay still has DuJan Harris, Alex Green and James Starks fighting for time, as well — but until Lacy and Franklin prove themselves and the depth charts settles, the Packers are still behind in the division.

Frazier says: “If (Peterson) rushed for 2,500 and we reach our goals of going to New York at the end of the year, we’d be very, very happy. It’s hard to predict whether or not if he rushed for 2,500 yards would that impede upon us being able to be successful as a team. He rushed for over 2,000 a year ago, we were a playoff team and the reason we didn’t go further in the playoffs was not because he was a 2,000-yard rusher. So, if it helps us to win and reach our goals as a team, so be it. Adrian will be the first person to tell you, he’ll trade in a 2,500-yard rushing season for a Super Bowl ring. It’s not imperative that he rushed for 2,000 yards, or 2,500 yards for us to win. We want to be a balanced attack. Our offense is always going to run through Adrian but we want to be able to pass the ball better than we did a year ago.”

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