The Vikings declined to pick up the 2017 option year in Peterson’s contract. If they exercised that option year, he was scheduled to make $18 million in 2017. Instead, he became a free agent, made three visits to other teams and eventually settled on a two-year, $7 million contract with the New Orleans Saints.
At his best, Peterson was easily the best runner in the NFL, set the single-game rushing mark and nearly set the single-season rushing record. But would any level of production justify his salary?
The analytics site fivethirtyeight.com pointed out the Vikings aren’t alone in no longer paying running backs $10 million or more per season. In fact, they are late to the party in joining an NFL-wide trend that shows running back salaries on a decline while players at other positions continue to see escalating salaries that mirror a salary cap that has regularly increased by more than $10 million per season of late.
Fivethirtyeight.com tracked the top 16 highest paid running backs every season in this century, finding the running back position peaked financially in 2012 and has declined since. Meanwhile, the top half of quarterbacks in the NFL were getting paid about $5 million per season in 2000 and are now making more than $20 million per season. Besides running back, no other position has been on the decline over the last five years, and the top 16 running backs are scheduled to make less than any other offensive or defensive position in 2017.
The average for the top 16 running backs in 2017 is about $6 million per season.
So why are running backs – at least measured by the top 16 at the position – scheduled to make about half of what they did at the turn of the century?
Since 1975, the percentage of rushing plays has been on a pretty consistent decline. In 1977, teams ran on about 60 percent of the offensive plays. Since the early 1980s, they have run less than 50 percent of the time. However, since 1975, the average yards per play have fairly consistency been on the rise, from about 4.75 yards to 5.5 yards.
Fivethirtyeight.com also found that passing is almost always more effective than running.
“Basically, there is pretty much no ordinary situation in which running produces better results than passing. If a team is more than 10 points ahead in the second quarter, running has seemed to do OK,” writer Benjamin Morris concluded. “And that’s about it.”
“Even situations where running a lot is pretty standard — like up fewer than 10 points in the third or fourth quarters — passing has done substantially better. Of course, some amount of run/pass balance is necessary, or defenses would completely tee off on the pass every time. But this issue is likely overblown: As a pretty straightforward application of introductory game theory, if one option keeps producing substantially better results than the other, you should do it more often.”
Before and after Peterson signed with the Saints, the Vikings continued to say good things about him, like the oft-repeated phrase that Peterson “will always be a Viking.”
Meanwhile, the Vikings signed Latavius Murray in free agency and drafted Dalvin Cook in the second round. But they would appear to be joining the majority of NFL teams in concluding that paying running backs among the elite players in the league is a thing of the past.
“Committing money to ‘workhorse’ running backs who provide little outside of their ability to grind out a large number of yards inefficiently — a description that arguably fits Peterson as well as any great RB,” Morris wrote, “is like doubling down on buggy whips when everyone else is scrambling to make flying cars.”