Adrian Peterson's contract may dictate if 2016 is his last season with the Minnesota Vikings

With the 2016 NFL draft starting one month from today, the Vikings will be looking to fill needs, but, on the final day, it might make sense for the Vikings to roll the dice on a running back they like.

With the excitement ramping up for the opening of U.S. Bank Stadium and high expectations for the Minnesota Vikings in defense of their NFC North title, one thing that seems clear is that, when the Vikings open their new stadium for the first regular season game, there will be a thunderous ovation for running back Adrian Peterson.

The question that isn’t yet being asked, but looms on the horizon like an inevitable sunrise is how long will Peterson be a part of the next chapter in the history of the franchise?

A year ago at this time, there was a lot of line-in-the-sand talk being thrown back and forth between the Vikings and the representation for Peterson. The Vikings (and some fans) thought A.P. had a lot of audacity to demand that his contract, which was markedly higher than any running backs (including LeSean McCoy and DeMarco Murray) were signing during the free agent cycle of 2015, have more guarantees.

Peterson was the proud owner of a contract for a running back that will be difficult to duplicate in the future…until the next Adrian Peterson drops on the NFL like an atomic bomb. The debate between the Vikings and Peterson was sometimes acrimonious. It wasn’t an injury that had taken Peterson away in 2014. It was charges of child endangerment. It doesn’t happen often, but there were many who saw the Vikings as the damaged party, not Peterson. Until he was officially suspended by the league, he cashed eight paychecks for sitting home.

The Vikings were within their rights to tell Peterson that he signed the deal he’s under and he would either have to honor it or not play, so it came as some surprise when the Vikings agreed to restructure his contract, giving him a three-year, $42 million deal that included more than $20 million in guaranteed money.

Like most NFL contracts, the truth lies in the details, the fine print and the reality of the situation.

When the chatter began that Dallas might be willing to cut a trade to take on Peterson’s salary, the Vikings made it clear he wasn’t on the trading block. They had plans for him.

Given that he was fresh from missing almost a full year without having to rehab an injury, the expectation was that A.P. could once again win a rushing title. The $15.4 million he was paid was going to be guaranteed anyway. He doesn’t play in the preseason, so the odds of him getting injured were minimal. After Week 1, he’s on the books regardless of what happens.

He ended up leading the NFL in carries and rushing yards. It was what was expected and what Peterson delivered.

What makes his contract interesting is that the Vikings actually gained cap space this year on Peterson’s new-look deal. After being paid $15.4 million last year, Peterson’s cap number this year is $12 million -- $3.4 million less.

The way the contract is written, Peterson’s $15.4 million last year was tiered with $11 million as a base salary, a $2.4 million signing bonus and a $2 million roster bonus due at the opening of training camp.

This year, Peterson’s base salary dropped to $7.75 million, his roster bonus, which was due March 11 and paid, was $4 million. There is also a $250,000 OTA/minicamp workout bonus that kicks the contract to $12 million. However, if the Vikings were to cut or trade Peterson, they would face $7.75 million in dead money that would count against the salary cap.

In reality, the Vikings were fully aware that they wanted a franchise faceplate to be present when their new stadium opens. The way the deal was structured, given the guaranteed money, the cost of having Peterson for the 2016 season was just $4.25 million over what his cap number would be if he was gone.

It made fiscal sense to keep him for 2016, especially given that he has shown no signs of hitting the wall – except for some diminished numbers late in the season when the team was making a playoff push.

Next year?

It’s a completely different story.

In 2017, Peterson’s base salary jumps back up to $11.75 million with a $6 million roster bonus due the third business day of 2017 – three days after free agency opens – and another $250,000 workout bonus. It comes to a total of $18 million.

But, it is $18 million that might not be paid.

Peterson will be another year older and, while he still has a lot of good football left in him because a Super Bowl and records are what drives him, the commitment the Vikings made last year would be paid in full. Next year, they won’t owe Peterson a dime if they decide to cut him, trade him or convince him to restructure.

With the draft coming a month from today, the Vikings may pay cursory attention to the running back position and look for a potential successor in the third day of the selections.

It may seem a little early to be thinking about life post-Peterson, but you can bet the best and brightest at Winter Park are already preparing for scenarios that include that. With no guaranteed cost and an $18 million cap hit coming in 2017, it’s a bargaining chip they have in their favor.


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