There was a time when Adrian Peterson staunchly preferred one-back sets to running behind a lead blocker. And the reigning NFL MVP might still say he'd rather be the only running back in the backfield. But Jerome Felton was so effective last season, he even got Peterson to admit how much the fullback helped him.
Peterson's 2,097-yard season, the second-best in NFL history, was constructed largely with Felton stuffing defenders in front of him. According to ESPN Stats & Information, 224 of Peterson's 348 carries last season came in a two-back set. He averaged a whopping 7.25 yards per carry in those situations, scoring eight of his 12 touchdowns. When he wasn't in a two-back set? Peterson averaged 3.8 yards on his other 124 carries, for a total of 471 yards. To put it in the parlance of Marvel Comics (now owned by Disney!), without Felton, Peterson was Tony Stark. With him, he was Iron Man.
Now, Peterson (and the Vikings) will have to see how effective the running back can be without Felton for the first three games of the season. He was suspended on Monday for violating the league's substance abuse policy, stemming from his June 2012 arrest for drunken driving. A source close to Felton told ESPN.com that the fullback had an appeal hearing three weeks ago, and the league both rejected Felton's appeal and announced his suspension Monday.
Felton would be eligible to play in the Vikings' final preseason game, but he was already going to miss Thursday's contest after having an emergency appendectomy earlier this month. He won't be able to play in the regular season until Sept. 29, when the Vikings face the Pittsburgh Steelers in London, and by that point, Felton will have been out of game action for almost two months. He'll also start the season by missing division road games in Detroit and Chicago, where the Vikings could certainly use him.
Peterson's first 100-yard game after knee surgery came last Sept. 30 in Detroit. Felton played 39.2 percent of the Vikings' offensive snaps in that game, according to Pro Football Focus. In three other games against the Lions and Bears last season, Peterson ran for 171, 108 and 154 yards, with Felton on the field 39.7, 21.2 and 45.9 percent of the time. In all but one of the Vikings' wins -- when they were able to run Peterson often in the fourth quarter and seal off the game -- Felton played at least 30 percent of the time. He was a key piece of their strategy last year, and after having won just one division game on the road since 2009, they'll have to try to claim two without him.
Rhett Ellison has shown he can be an effective run blocker, and undrafted free agent Zach Line could make the team in Felton's absence. But Felton earned a trip to the Pro Bowl and a three-year, $7.5 million contract because he was good at being Peterson's escort. To not have him for a tough stretch of the season is less than ideal.
We'll talk more about this in the coming weeks, but things could get dicey for the Vikings early if they can't handle their grueling September slate (two games on the road, a home opener and a 4,000-mile trip to London for another "home" game). They have an eight-week stretch, from late October to early December, when they play teams who finished at least 8-8 last year, and they'll want to prepare for it by building some confidence and taking care of things in their division early.
That would've been easier with Felton on the field. But as Peterson starts the sequel to his MVP season, he won't have his Pro Bowl fullback to follow.