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What Should We Expect from Adrian Peterson After Age 30?

Shaun Church
Adrian Peterson

With the news that Minnesota Vikings star running back Adrian Peterson won his court hearing against the NFL and is closer to being reinstated, it’s time to talk about a few things.

Peterson has a $15.4 million price tag in 2015—will the Vikings absorb it and welcome him back? If they don’t, do they release him, saving $13 million (he has only $2.4 million in “dead money” attached to his contract for 2015), or will general manager Rick Spielman trade the six-time Pro Bowler in an attempt to get something for him while at the same time alleviating at least part of the substantial cap number?

Those questions are important and will be answered in due time. But the most pressing question that we can answer for you right now is this: Can Peterson return to his All-Pro form after taking a year off?

He will be 30 when the 2015 season gets underway, and the vast majority of NFL backs—if they make it that far at all—hit the proverbial wall around the time their 30th birthday comes around.

The league is such that most running backs are disposable tools teams use up and throw away after they’re so banged up they can barely walk across the locker room after a game.

Football is a physical game, and backs are at the forefront of its brutality. But the best of the best can withstand the punishment and keep moving forward. Throughout the history of the NFL, there have been a handful of running backs who have held up despite frequent punishment. Jim Brown, Eric Dickerson, Walter Payton and Emmitt Smith are a few—the list is short but is a who’s who of the NFL’s elite. The league’s best-ever backs are such not because they elude the big hits and rip off big gains; just the opposite, they run through defenders en route to racking up yards.

Succeeding at running back in the NFL is tough. It takes a combination of many attributes, the greatest of which is often not discussed as being the key—size. Here’s a stat for you:

Of the 29 players in NFL history with at least 10,000 yards rushing in their careers, just two of them are listed as being fewer than 200 pounds. You read that correctly. The NFL record for rushing yards by a running back under 200 pounds is 12,739—and Tony Dorsett is eighth on the all-time list. Size matters when talking longevity at running back. The bigger they are, the harder they fall into defenders, if you will.

Peterson has hovered around 215 pounds throughout his eight-year NFL career, and he has been one of the most physical runners of this era. In fact, his style of play is as old-school as it gets. He’s a Jim Brown-clone playing in a modern era of football that frowns at too much contact.

After the 2013 season in which he rushed for over 1,200 yards and 10 touchdowns, Peterson ranked 15th among all backs in league history in carries before turning 29, with 2,033. Here are the 14 backs ahead of him and what they did from the season they turned 29 years old to the end of their careers. You’ll notice every one of them is over 200 pounds. Eight are Hall of Famers.

NFL RB After 29 SN

On average, those backs played another four years, carrying the ball 200 times per season for just over 800 yards and five touchdowns. Every back is different and every situation is different, and no one can say with any degree of certainty Peterson will be the same back he was pre-suspension. But one thing is certain: AD is not your average 30-year-old running back. He is the best athlete on the field when he plays, and injuries have rarely slowed him down.

Other than a torn ACL that ended his 2011 season 30 yards shy of a fifth straight 1,000-yard year to start his career, Peterson has toughed it out and played through most injuries. Even the ACL didn’t stop him from being who he is, as he nearly broke Dickerson’s single-season rushing record just months after surgery.

Based on recent speculation, Peterson could be on his way out of Minnesota. It’s been said the Dallas Cowboys, Indianapolis Colts and Arizona Cardinals all have interest in the best back of our era, but no matter where he plays in 2015, a couple of things are given: After missing the 2014 season, he’s fresher and healthier now than he would have been had he played last season; and he is eager to prove he’s still the best running back in the NFL.

It would be wise for his next offensive coordinator to lessen his load, however. Just because he’s a superior athlete and one of the best of all-time, that doesn’t mean he should average 300 touches per season over the remainder of his career. Why chance it? Get him the ball 200 to 250 times out of the backfield and in the passing game and let him do what he does while keeping him fresh enough to be effective for a handful of seasons.

Just don’t doubt him—he might run you over to prove you wrong.

Photo: USA Today