For the second time this free-agency period, the Detroit Lions have been mentioned as a potential landing spot for running back Adrian Peterson. It’s an enticing marriage, as it would keep Peterson in the NFC North to face the Minnesota Vikings, his former team, twice a season, with a squad he has routinely run over during his NFL career.
Peterson is one of the biggest stars in the sport. His name would give the Lions cachet that departed when Calvin Johnson retired a year ago and make the franchise relevant nationally, despite the team’s record. From a national perspective, the instant Peterson signed with the Lions, he would be their most well-known player.
That doesn’t mean it makes sense for the Lions to bring Peterson to Detroit.
Yes, the Lions have been seeking to improve their No. 30 rushing attack this offseason. It has been one of general manager Bob Quinn’s biggest goals, something he said publicly less than a week after the 2016 season concluded. Many of the moves he made in free agency fit that goal, including the signings of right tackle Rick Wagner, right guard T.J. Lang and Darren Fells, one of the best blocking tight ends in the NFL.
All of that was to do two things: Protect quarterback Matthew Stafford, and give the Lions the chance to have an effective running game for the first time since the 2013 season, when Reggie Bush had a 1,000-yard season and Joique Bell added 650 more.
Peterson isn’t the way to do that unless he’s willing to sign an incentive-laden, low-cost deal. The future Hall of Famer turns 32 next week. He lost most of the past season to a right medial meniscus tear, and he averaged 1.6 yards per carry before the injury in Week 2 against Green Bay. That figure improved in the one game he played later in the season, though he was used sparingly in the six-carry, 22-yard outing.
As Quinn said after the end of the season, fixing the Lions’ running game doesn’t necessarily mean replacing the team’s running back. Too much goes into an effective run game because no matter the rusher, if there are no holes to slip through, no back will have sustained success.
That’s the thing: The Lions had success before injuries struck the backs, starting in Week 2 with a foot injury to Ameer Abdullah. Provided he is healthy, Abdullah has a bunch of talent and heads into his third season looking — from a small sample size in 2016 — to be the type of lead back who fits well in Detroit. Abdullah is versatile. He is quick through the hole and a receiving threat. He is complemented by Theo Riddick, one of the best pass-catching backs in the league who is also coming off injury.
Zach Zenner has shown that he can have a role, and Dwayne Washington, though he struggled last season, is the type of big back Detroit could use if he can take the teaching from running-backs coach David Walker and turn it into production.
Every back on the roster has dual-threat capability. That seems paramount in a Lions offense that relies heavily on the pass. Maybe having Peterson would change that philosophy, but he has never been confused for a pass-catching back and hasn’t had more than 300 yards receiving in a season since 2010.
Plus, every Lions back other than Riddick is on his rookie contract. They are young. They have a lot of energy left in their legs and are heading toward their primes, instead of away, as Peterson would be doing.
Plus, Peterson is coming off an injury just as Abdullah and Riddick are. If I’m a general manager and I’m bringing Peterson in as anything more than a role player, I would have a lot of concerns between his age and production prior to his injury last season. Running back, more than perhaps any position in the league, has seen that precipitous drop-off after age 30 with a team other than the one a back played with for the majority of his career.
Shaun Alexander’s going to Washington and being wholly unproductive is the extreme example, but Eric Dickerson with the Raiders and Falcons and Emmitt Smith in Arizona late in their careers also come to mind. They were OK backs, but neither ran for 1,000 yards. (To be fair, the numbers Smith and Dickerson put up late in their careers would have been good in Detroit’s backfield last season.)
How can a franchise develop a younger back if an older back such as Peterson is siphoning a large share of the carries? That seems like a possible outcome if Peterson were to join the Lions. It would be unlikely that Detroit would sign him to do anything other than play a large role, and it would be surprising for Peterson to take a backup job. That just doesn’t seem to fit with what the Lions are building.
The Lions need to add a running back. They likely will at some point and should consider it later in the draft, where they can find another young player to work into a strong rotation. Maybe they find a star. Maybe they don’t.
Bringing in Adrian Peterson … it’s just tough to see that making sense.