Adrian Peterson's career has been defined by defying expectations, whether running for 2,000 yards after knee surgery or leading the league in rushing at age 30. For his final act, Peterson will try to succeed in a role that no one saw coming: backup running back in a pass-first offense. It's just crazy enough to work.
Peterson agreed to a two-year, $7 million contract with the New Orleans Saints on Tuesday, NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported, and the terms of his contract tell part of the story. He's guaranteed $3.5 million, which, by no coincidence, is just under the $3.7 million that Mark Ingram is set to earn in 2017. For now, the Saints are sending a message that Ingram is option 1A in a two-man backfield that could fit Peterson better than most people think.
Peterson has never been an asset on passing downs, and nearly every snap on a team run by Sean Payton and Drew Brees is a potential passing down. But there has always been space for a Peterson-like runner in the Saints' offense. Chris Ivory used to be the team's between-the-tackles hammer, a role that was played last season by Tim Hightower, who wound up with 155 touches. Peterson will step into that job at the very least, although he should carry the ball much more in a Saints backfield that was quietly thin before this move.
Payton, like Bill Belichick, has always preferred to have many running back options who can perform different roles. The Saints were at their best when Ivory was one of four runners in a diverse backfield that included Ingram, Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles. Now Ingram, Peterson and satellite back Travaris Cadet will share the load.
Worrying about who the "starter" is between Ingram and Peterson misses the point. They both will have a huge role to play, and it's on Peterson to prove he needs to stay on the field. Ingram is a former first-round pick, but the six-year veteran has never had the kind of workhorse responsibilities Peterson handled in Minnesota. While Ingram has improved greatly on passing downs over the years, he's never played more than 542 snaps in a season. That should leave plenty of room for Peterson.
"On offense, it goes without saying that the Saints are really solid behind Drew Brees. I feel like my skill set can make them even more dominant as a unit," Peterson said in a statement released after the signing. "They have a great offensive line, which is something that stood out to me as well. I could tell from talking to head coach Sean Payton over the last two weeks that he did his due diligence in evaluating how I could contribute."
Peterson should be excited. Often playing with one hand behind his back because of the quarterback situation or offensive line in Minnesota, Peterson now joins a top-five quarterback and a line that ranked among the league's best in run-blocking in 2016, according to Football Outsiders. Peterson will face more advantageous fronts in New Orleans. The Saints do a great job spreading teams out horizontally with all of their receivers, and Peterson is built to gash opponents up the middle.
The learning curve for Peterson in the Saints' pass-heavy offense could be steep, although perhaps the fit isn't as awkward as one would expect. While the NFL has moved inexorably toward playing out of the shotgun formation at all times, the Saints have gone in the other direction. The team ranked 28th in shotgun snaps in 2016. They ran the ball with Brees under center, not in the shotgun, 80.45 percent of the time, good for fifth in the league. That track record plays to Peterson's strengths, and I'd expect the team to play to its personnel with more power football in 2017.
The mystery here that no one can answer with full confidence in April: Which version of Peterson will show up in New Orleans? Normally, a 32-year-old coming off a season plagued by knee and ankle injuries would inspire only skepticism. Peterson is anything but normal. He's one of the greatest players at any position of this century, just two years removed from leading the league in rushing. Peterson has long overwhelmed opponents with his physicality and aggressive running style. He simply runs harder than everyone else, and that's never changed as long as he's been on the field. Paying $3.5 million for the possibility of greatness is a gamble worth taking from a Saints front office that has made many worse longshot bets.
Any disappointment for Peterson about the lack of money and starting-job offers he found in free agency should dissipate when he hits the field in Metairie, Louisiana, for offseason practices. He finally has an offensive line. He has Drew Brees. He has a head coach in Sean Payton running out of chances to recapture past glory -- something Payton might need to find if all three want to avoid looking for work elsewhere in 2018.