Chris Johnson, the former CJ2K, is still a free agent with no sign of a looming contract being agreed to after being released by the Tennessee Titans. Maurice Jones-Drew’s market in free agency was slow to develop before he agreed to a three-year, $7.5 million contract with the Oakland Raiders.
Former Minnesota Vikings running back Toby Gerhart, a young 27 years old with just 276 NFL carries, actually pulled the biggest deal for a running back in free agency this offseason by agreeing to a three-year, $10.5 million contract with the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Except in Minnesota where the offense begins with Adrian Peterson, who feels he — along with a few other backs — buck the offensive trends.
"I feel like me and a couple of other guys, we’re going to try and keep it alive as far as the running backs being able to come out and be able to keep the running back position top of the level," Peterson said, without divulging his compatriots in the fight against the position’s marginalization. "And that’s going to come with guys putting in the hard work and being able to produce and show that when they step on the field."
But how much longer can Peterson continue to defy the NFL logic, and time?
Reaching 30 years old is just a number to most people. It’s a death knell for NFL running backs. Peterson, who just turned 29, believes he has several more high-quality seasons left. Recent history would suggest otherwise.
Peterson is coming off surgery for the third consecutive offseason. As he’s shown, though, he’s no ordinary back. He knows his work has to change as his age increases.
"The most important thing is taking care of your body," Peterson said last week.
He has no interest in limiting carries to save the wear and tear on his body. When he left for the offseason, he told reporters he sees himself being a productive back long into his 30s.
Peterson has seen what has happened to running backs around the league not getting paid highly in free agency. But he also feels it’s not an indication of the position as a whole.
"It’s kind of how it is, unfortunately," Peterson said. "There’s a couple of guys that are exempt from that. I feel like I’m one of them. Chris Johnson, maybe if he would have run for 1,800 yards this year then he’d have a different story about how much he’s bringing in. But guys like Jones- Drew and Ben Tate, some of those guys, I think Ben Tate out of all the guys is getting paid the most. I feel like because when NFL teams see him, they were able to see how productive he was in place of Arian Foster.
"It’s all about what have you done for me lately? This league, unfortunately the guys that were out in free agency this year didn’t really have incredible numbers, incredible seasons to be able to get the type of numbers they want in free agency."
Tate left Houston as Foster’s backup to sign with the Cleveland Browns. Tate has been productive when given a chance and turns just 26 in August. Yet, he was left to sign a two-year contract, receiving $6.2 million.
Gerhart, Peterson’s former backup, came away with the biggest contract passed out to a back this offseason. But even Gerhart’s deal was surpassed by those signed by kickers Robbie Gould, Dan Bailey and Nick Folk since December.
Johnson, the only player in the NFL with six straight seasons of 1,000 yards rushing, is looking for a job. He’s also coming off a season in which he ran for a career-low 3.9 yards per carry. Drew had a career-low 3.4 yards per carry last year, adding weight to Peterson’s argument against the pure statistics.
Peterson is one of seven players to rush for at least 1,000 yards each of the past two seasons. Johnson, Marshawn Lynch and Frank Gore are the only backs to reach 1,000 yards rushing each of the past three seasons.
It’s also possible no running back will be drafted in the first round in May’s NFL Draft, which would make the second straight season. From 2000-2011, 36 running backs were selected in the first round.
Peterson, the league’s top paid running back courtesy of a seven-year, $96 million contract signed in 2011, counts as a $14.4 million salary-cap hit for Minnesota. Peterson still has guarantees through next season when he will count $15.4 million against the cap. He accounts for $15 million against the cap in 2016 and $15 million in 2017, when he will be 32 years old.
He doesn’t plan on letting age get to him. He’s also seen players deteriorate after a few NFL seasons and knows what he must do to avoid any drop-off as he continues.
"I would watch guys that left college for the NFL and they were good for the first three years and then they would kind of, you know, kind of went down as far as their productivity in the league," Peterson said. "Once I was able to go through college and make the transition myself, the NFL is the offseason. That’s what gets guys. Because it’s not like college where you’ve got to come in and they are digging you into the dirt as far as working out. You have to do it yourself. You’ve really got to work hard, you’ve got to take care of your body, especially when you get older. You’ve got to push even harder as far as working out and pushing your body to get to that next level."
Peterson has left many doubters in his wake over the years; will he silence doubters as he pushes past 30?