The buzz surrounding Adrian Peterson grew even more deafening around New Orleans Saints camp this spring with each powerful step the 32-year-old running back took on the practice field.
“I’m amazed, honestly. Seeing him just take off his first few steps are as explosive as I’ve ever seen by a human being,” said Saints left tackle Terron Armstead, echoing the awe that could be heard throughout the locker room.
Of course, some of that is springtime hype, and some of that is the reverence so many players have for one of the NFL’s all-time greats. In truth, Peterson remains a bit of an unknown after playing in just three games last year because of a torn meniscus in his knee, which is why he had to settle for an incentive-laden two-year contract with the Saints that included only $3.5 million in guarantees.
So the question I posed to the rest of ESPN’s NFC South reporters was: What do you (or better yet your teams) expect from Peterson this year? A curiosity? A reason to fear the Saints or plan for games against them differently? Or not much different than the Mark Ingram/Tim Hightower duo the Saints featured the past two years?
Vaughn McClure, Atlanta Falcons reporter: I spoke with a league executive about this topic immediately after Peterson signed, and that person made some interesting points. The executive said to expect Peterson to show up in the big games, like the Sept. 11 opener against his former team, the Minnesota Vikings, on ESPN’s Monday Night Football and any meaningful NFC South clash. “You don’t want to run that guy out there for 16 games,” the executive said. “Then you risk him getting hurt again.” Opposing coaches certainly respect Peterson and his potential to break off big runs like the Peterson of old. Peterson’s second-highest single-game rushing effort during the past three seasons, 158 yards, came in a win over Atlanta in 2015. You can bet the Falcons won’t take him for granted. Is Peterson a guy you have to devise your entire defensive game plan around to stop? Not anymore. But any defensive coordinator would be foolish to underestimate a player who overcame a serious left knee injury to become the league’s MVP in 2012. Having Ingram simply gives the Saints the ability to pick and choose the best times to use Peterson, even if that means both are on the field together.
Jenna Laine, Tampa Bay Buccaneers reporter: Jameis Winston raved about his time training with Peterson this offseason. He and several receivers went to Houston to work out at his facility. “Just for them to be able to see what greatness is, it helps us. It helps build us, it helps motivate us,” Winston said. Bucs coach Dirk Koetter also called Peterson “one of the best running backs to ever play.” So no one at One Buc Place is taking him lightly. The Bucs made it a point to bolster their run defense this offseason, re-signing their best run-stopping defensive end in William Gholston, whose presence they sorely missed in Week 16 last year against the Saints, when they lost 31-24 and missed the playoffs. The Bucs also re-signed Sealver Siliga, who gives them a lot of mass up the middle, and drafted Stevie Tu’ikolovatu, who gives them great size along the interior. A healthy Peterson doesn’t just strain the defensive line, because he is so successful at getting to the second level and is so shifty, it places extra emphasis on linebackers Kwon Alexander and Lavonte David. From an actual game-planning standpoint, I don’t think it changes how the Bucs line up at all. Of the 67 defensive snaps the Bucs took against the Saints in Week 16 last year, they spent only 15 of them in nickel, the fewest times they used nickel personnel and the most they lined up in their base defense all season. They used a heavy dose of their base defense in Week 14, as well, which shows how much they already respect the Saints’ ability to run the ball.
David Newton, Carolina Panthers reporter: The Panthers will say all the right things to build Peterson’s impact up to be politically correct. I don’t have that filter. Sorry, but my expectations aren’t high. In part, that’s because Peterson never has been great against the Panthers, and in part, that’s because Peterson is 32 years old learning a new offense. Oh, and the Saints have a guy named Drew Brees who likes to throw for nearly 5,000 yards every season. I just don’t see the Saints committing to the run game to make Peterson or any back that isn’t a dual-threat extremely dangerous. Not to say Peterson hasn’t been a dual-threat in the past. I just don’t see him at his age doing what he has done in the past. He may prove me wrong. The Saints may prove me wrong and become more dedicated to the run. But with that defense, they’ll likely be playing catch-up a lot or be involved in a shootout. Neither promotes being dedicated to the running game. No offense to Peterson, who like Brees will wind up in the Hall of Fame, but this isn’t an offseason acquisition I see leading New Orleans back to the promised land.