MINNEAPOLIS -- If last week's comments from Minnesota Vikings executives are to be taken at face value, the team appears to be laying a path for Adrian Peterson's return to the team, once the suspended running back is reinstated by the NFL.
At this point, the biggest potential roadblock probably isn't principle. It's Peterson's contract, which calls for the running back to make $12.75 million in 2015 and count $15.4 million against the salary cap at age 30. Peterson would have the highest cap figure in the league at his position, by 28 percent over Philadelphia's LeSean McCoy. His deal would seem to be an outlier in the marketplace, as he reaches an age when running backs typically see their production decline.
But if the Vikings are serious about keeping him -- and based on their recent comments, they certainly appear to be -- could they? It's not as difficult, or outlandish, as you might think.
We spoke with a handful of people around the league about Peterson's future, and we'll be examining the Vikings' options this week. Today, we'll look at the possibility the Vikings will keep Peterson on his current deal in 2015. Several people we spoke with, including ESPN NFL business analyst Andrew Brandt and agent Blake Baratz, believe that's a viable option.
First, let's look at the particulars of where things stand. Currently, Peterson can't be reinstated until April 15, and he would be returning to the league at least five weeks after the start of free agency, when teams have the most money to spend. Peterson, though, will return completely healthy (tackled only 21 times in 2014), and anyone who remembers his 2,097-yard return from ACL surgery in 2012 knows what a force he can be when he has something to prove.
With the cap likely to rise to $140 million, Baratz doesn't believe it's unreasonable to think another team could pay Peterson what he's scheduled to make in 2015.
"In my opinion, is it going to be impossible for him to make $12.75 million in 2015? No," said Baratz, whose Minneapolis-based agency represents 38 NFL players. "I think it's a very, very difficult decision for both sides, but if you asked me to pick who has more leverage, it would be Adrian Peterson. He’s already on the books for a certain number. He's 100 percent healthy. The season’s over. There's no risk of injury."
That's why the Vikings could be taking a risk if they asked Peterson to restructure his deal, especially if the relationship between the team and the running back is at a tenuous state.
"Looking from a front-office point of view, the question is simply, 'Do we want him?'" said Brandt, who managed the Green Bay Packers' salary cap for nine years as their vice president. "'If we want him, let’s work to make it happen. If we don’t, I’m not sure a pay-cut decision really matters.' One thing I’ve learned about teams and pay cuts is, if you’re going to ask someone to take one, better be damn sure you’re going to cut him [if he doesn't accept]. Otherwise, you lose all credibility."
The safest, simplest way to ensure Peterson's return in 2015, then, would be to keep him under his current contract. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Vikings would be roughly $13.76 million under a $140 million cap, counting Peterson's $15.4 million cap figure. A few roster moves could push the Vikings' available cap space north of $20 million.
The Vikings are expected to reduce linebacker Chad Greenway's 2015 contract. Let's say they kept Greenway and guaranteed a base salary of $3.1 million, which would result in a net savings of $4 million. Otherwise, releasing Greenway would produce a cap savings of $7.1 million. Wide receiver Greg Jennings is scheduled to carry an $11 million cap number in 2015. He will be 32 in September after two years of underwhelming production. Considering the Vikings could save $9 million by releasing him with a June 1 designation, they might approach him with a similar offer to the ones they have made to Greenway and defensive tackle Kevin Williams in recent years, offering to guarantee a reduced base salary in exchange for cash savings. Let's call it a $5.4 million base salary in exchange for a savings of $3.5 million. Cutting guard Charlie Johnson would save another $2.5 million.
That's $10 million in savings with three moves, and the Vikings suddenly have almost $24 million in cap space and Peterson in the backfield with their young quarterback. They would have another year to gauge how much Peterson has left and more time to see if Teddy Bridgewater can get them closer to contention, and they would avoid any restructuring talk with Peterson until he's 31. By that point, he would be a year removed from reinstatement, possibly more amenable to redoing his deal if he felt the Vikings were close to a deep playoff run and less likely to recoup his $14.75 million base salary for 2016 on the open market.
"Jared Allen had a $17 million cap number [in 2013], and they let him play that out," said a source who works on NFL contracts. "Adrian at $15.4 million is a better value than that. Maybe you kick the can down the road for a year and see where you're at."
Said Baratz: "If you've got a young QB and an absolute monster like Adrian Peterson, he frees everything up. I've never been one that's gotten caught up in, 'This is what the top running back makes.' When you get into the category of being one of the more dominant players in the league, you should get paid like one."