Peterson's contract means exit is feasible

MINNEAPOLIS -- When the Minnesota Vikings talked earlier this spring about getting Adrian Peterson more involved in the passing game and reducing the toll on his body by converting some of his carries to receptions, it was fair -- if a bit cynical -- to wonder if they were beginning the process of divesting themselves from the 2012 NFL MVP.

From a pure football perspective, the change made sense. Offensive coordinator Norv Turner's schemes have always involved getting running backs involved as receivers, the Vikings were in need of more balance in their offense and in the modern NFL, it's not terribly prudent to lean so heavily on a running back, especially one who will be 30 in just over 10 months.

This, again, being the modern NFL, the cold-hearted corollary to a changing role for a veteran is usually this: How much longer will that player be around?

That's why it's worth spending a bit of time on what Mike Freeman (formerly of CBSSports.com and now of Bleacher Report) wrote on Sunday, when he said that "the Vikings are looking for ways to part with superstar runner Adrian Peterson sooner rather than later," and quoted an AFC general manager who believes the 2014 season will be Peterson's last in Minnesota. Peterson will make $12 million this season, counting his $250,000 workout bonus, and he's due to be paid $44 million in the last three years of his deal -- though the Vikings would face just a $2.4 million cap hit if they cut him after this season and no penalty if they released him after 2015.

When the Vikings signed Peterson to his $100 million contract extension in 2011, they structured it for precisely the scenario we're discussing here. What's striking, though, is how quickly the NFL landscape has shifted away from running backs, to the point where Peterson is the only back in the league with a cap hit of more than $10 million. He's still the franchise player, and even with a set of nagging injuries that limited him to 18 carries in the team's last four games, he finished fifth in the league with 1,266 yards last season. But Peterson's had three surgeries in the last three years, and even if the Vikings' offense is still structured around him now, they're clearly (and rightly) planning for a day where it won't be.

It's worth remembering what the Vikings did with cornerback Antoine Winfield in 2012, planning to reduce his number of snaps in the base defense and lean more on young cornerbacks like Chris Cook and Josh Robinson. That didn't work, and Winfield wound up having one of his best years while playing 90 percent of the Vikings' defensive snaps, but the team released Winfield at age 35 last spring instead of restructuring his contract. A 29- (or 30-) year-old running back isn't that much more of an outlier than a 35-year-old cornerback, and while Peterson certainly could continue to be one of the NFL's best running backs for a few more years, he's playing with a contract that makes him an outlier in the NFL's salary spectrum, and the league usually deals with such anomalies harshly.

Will this be Peterson's last season with the Vikings? I'm not sure I'd go that far, but his age and his contract structure makes the question worth asking. At the very least, the Vikings could come asking for money back from Peterson in the form of a contract restructure after this season. Time will tell if they take more permanent measures than that, but as Vikings fans should know by remembering with whom Peterson shared a backfield in 2009 and 2010 -- and how Brett Favre came to Minnesota -- the cruel reality of the NFL is that no one is safe.