Should I Draft Adrian Peterson?

All listed fantasy scores assume ½-PPR scoring, unless otherwise noted. Whether you use traditional or PPR or ½-PPR, the scores given should be pretty close to what your league uses.

For much of the last seven years, Adrian Peterson has been the first overall pick in NFL fantasy leagues. This year, he's probably ceded that position to LeSean McCoy and Jamaal Charles, even Matt Forte and Eddie Lacy sometimes, with the occasional Peyton Manning, Calvin Johnson, or Jimmy Graham thrown in. Are we underrating the greatest running back of this generation? Or are we overrating a legend whose best years are now behind him?

This is Adrian Peterson's eighth season in the NFL. Running backs have the shortest careers of any position, and it's rare for an RB to be productive at this age and level of experience. However, Peterson is an exceptional athlete. You don't compare him to normal players. We'll look at RBs throughout history who meet all of the following conditions:

1. Between 28-30-years-old
2. Six to eight years NFL experience
3. Top-10 fantasy RB in prior season
4. But not top-three
5. Top-three fantasy RB two seasons earlier
6. Played 16-game seasons

Adrian Peterson is 29, and he has played seven seasons in the NFL. He was the 8th-best RB in fantasy last season, and he was the top scorer the year before. Who else has a similar profile? Not many people. It's Eric Dickerson in 1990, Thurman Thomas in 1995, Barry Sanders in 1997, Emmitt Smith in 1997, Ricky Watters in 1998, and Marshall Faulk in 2003, plus Clinton Portis, LaDainian Tomlinson, and Brian Westbrook in 2009. That's nine comparable player seasons.

In the table below, x equates to the year listed — 2014 for Peterson. x-1 is the previous year, Peterson's 2013 season. x-2 is the season before that, Peterson's 2012. The numbers in the chart represent fantasy points, divided by 16. It's basically points per game, but no breaks for players who got injured and missed time.

Chart

This is a scary forecast if you're thinking of drafting Peterson third or fourth overall. The players above all look like Peterson: they're the same age, roughly the same wear-and-tear, all had recently been the best RB in the NFL (or close to it) and all had a pretty good season the year before, not the kind that indicates a player is washed up. Barry Sanders was awesome in '97, the best RB in the NFL. But no one else on the list was worth a top-three draft pick, and only Watters was deserving of a top-10. Seven of the nine dropped in value. Drafting Dickerson, Portis, or Westbrook in the first round would have wrecked your fantasy season.

This is a very small sample, and it's hard to draw conclusions from it. But apart from Walter Payton, most running backs who had top-five fantasy seasons after turning 29 were guys who had been underutilized early in their careers, and didn't have the same mileage as Peterson. Here are the highest-scoring fantasy seasons in a 16-game schedule, by running backs who were 29 or older:

1. Priest Holmes, 410 (25.6 fppg)
2. Barry Sanders, 336
3. Tiki Barber, 332
4. Tiki Barber, 326
5. Charlie Garner, 302
6. Curtis Martin, 299
7. Walter Payton, 293.9
8. Walter Payton, 293.7
9. John Riggins, 284
10. Walter Payton, 277

The only other RBs who topped 250 (15.6 ppg) in a season were Barber (again), Watters, Thomas Jones, Tony Dorsett, Dorsey Levens, Payton again, Emmitt Smith, and Tomlinson. That's with half-PPR scoring, so revise the numbers downward if your league doesn't count receptions (or up if it does). Those are good seasons — some of them worthy of a top-five draft pick. But there aren't very many of them. Peterson has earned comparisons to Sanders, Martin, and Payton. But we could just as easily compare him to Eric Dickerson, Marshall Faulk, or Thurman Thomas, all of whom lost effectiveness by Peterson's age.

We don't want to draw too many conclusions from age and experience, though, so let's look at recent performance. I'll show two more charts: most fantasy points in 2013, and most fantasy points over the last three years combined. Here are the top 10 fantasy RBs of 2013, by ½-PPR.

1. Jamaal Charles, 347 (21.7 per game)
2. LeSean McCoy, 307 (19.2)
3. Matt Forte, 302 (18.9)
4. Knowshon Moreno, 267 (16.7)
5. Marshawn Lynch, 259 (16.2)
6. DeMarco Murray, 234 (14.6)
7. Eddie Lacy, 227 (14.2)
8. Adrian Peterson, 224 (14.0)
9. Chris Johnson, 223 (14.0)
10. Reggie Bush, 220 (13.8)

No one's drafting Knowshon Moreno in the first round, so let's see the bigger picture. Over the last three seasons, which RBs have the most fantasy points? The chart below shows standard scoring, ½-PPR, and PPR. It's sorted by ½-PPR. I used 2010 instead of 2011 for Jamaal Charles; he missed 15 games in '11, so that wouldn't give an accurate gauge of his production.

Top-Scoring Fantasy RBs, 2011-13

Chart

It's really, really hard to justify drafting Adrian Peterson before Jamaal Charles and LeSean McCoy. Both those guys have had injury scares in the preseason, but neither sounds like anything to worry about going forward.

My most important strategy in fantasy football is not to blow the first pick. You chase upside in the later rounds. At the top of the draft, you need to take someone solid. If they have upside, too, that's terrific, but almost without exception, you can't win if your first pick is a bust. There are good reasons to believe in Peterson, and there are good reasons not to. I was hoping this research would provide a definitive answer, and it doesn't. But it makes me nervous.

In most formats, McCoy and Charles are my first two off the board — probably in that order, but I don't feel strongly about it. That's the way it will go in most leagues. Peterson is a realistic option in the 3rd-7th spots. Don't take him before that, and do take him if he's still available later. But what if you're in that mid-first-round position?

In a large league, 12 or more teams, you need to take a running back early. There won't be a lot of quality RBs left on the board 21st overall. Peterson, Matt Forte, and Eddie Lacy are all risks. Peterson didn't have a great 2013, and he's getting older. Last year was the biggest of Forte's career; he's likely to decline this season, even if he stays healthy. Lacy could be a one-year wonder. But if you're picking early in the first round of a big league, with Charles and McCoy off the board, you might have to take one of those guys. I'd probably go Forte, then Peterson, then Lacy or Lynch.

But in smaller leagues, 10 teams or less, I think I'd draft Jimmy Graham or Calvin Johnson. Those are low-risk, huge-upside, proven performers on pass-oriented offenses. And in smaller leagues like that, you can find productive RBs a couple rounds later. Moving on to non-Peterson matters...

Running Back

I didn't write earlier about Marshawn Lynch or DeMarco Murray, the other RBs who will go in the first round of most leagues. Lynch is the same age as Peterson, he's on a team with good young RBs, and he had a weird offseason. I'd draft him in the late first round (or early second for small leagues), but the upside is gone and the risk is growing. You draft Beastmode and just settle in with the idea he'll give you a top-10 season, and you'll win because you scored big in the other rounds. He's a relatively conservative pick. I worry about Murray staying healthy. He's got great upside, but I believe the risk is too big to use an early first-round pick on him. I don't think you can pass him up in the second round, but you'll want to handcuff with Lance Dunbar.

In eight-team mocks, I've been using back-to-back picks on Alfred Morris and Doug Martin, either as starters or as an RB2/FLEX combination. Morris is solid, a strong runner, and I expect him to see more goal-line touches this season. He is a lot less appealing in PPR. Martin was the 2nd-best RB in fantasy in 2012. There's some risk regarding playing time and health, so Martin shouldn't be your RB1, but he's got tremendous upside as an RB2 or backup.

I also like C.J. Spiller and Reggie Bush, though you should only draft one of them, since they have the same bye week. Bush and Joique Bell could be a sensible tandem at RB2/RB3 (or 3/4 in small leagues); they both figure to get touches, and if one gets hurt, the other should produce RB1 numbers. If you're drafting early and need a tiebreaker among Forte/Lacy/Peterson, consider that Forte and Lacy have the same bye week as Spiller, Bush, Bell, and Steven Jackson. Peterson shares his bye with Morris, Ryan Mathews, the New England guys, and Arian Foster, if you're into that sort of thing. Lynch shares his Week 4 bye with some promising runners, but no one I'm likely to draft this year.

In deeper leagues, Darren Sproles could be a good late-round pick. He's the handcuff for McCoy, and he should get touches in Chip Kelly's system even if Shady stays healthy. Chiefs backup Knile Davis is an appealing handcuff/lottery ticket toward the end of the draft.

Quarterback

There are three quarterbacks who clearly stand above the others: Drew Brees, Peyton Manning, and Aaron Rodgers. If you can't get one of them, that's okay — please don't use your first-round pick on a quarterback. There are 15 QBs I like this year. In most leagues, you should try to get two of them. A good backup QB is more important than your WR5 or kicker. Besides the three above, I like: Tom Brady, Jay Cutler, Nick Foles, Robert Griffin III, Colin Kaepernick, Andrew Luck, Cam Newton, Philip Rivers, Tony Romo, Matt Ryan, Matthew Stafford, and Russell Wilson. I don't have particularly strong preferences within the group, so I'd wait until there are only a few left on the board, then go for it, maybe even with back-to-back picks. Cutler is my least favorite, but the upside on that offense is undeniable.

Don't take the fourth QB of your draft. Or the fifth. The gaps in that second group aren't large enough that it's worth taking Newton four rounds earlier than Rivers, or Stafford way ahead of Wilson, or whatever. Don't miss the train entirely, but your patience in drafting this position will be rewarded.

Wide Receiver

Megatron is the clear top choice. A.J. Green is my second pick. I know people are choosing Dez Bryant and Demaryius Thomas ahead of Green, but I think that's a mistake. This is Bryant's fifth season; it's time to draft him on track record rather than potential. He's not a first-round pick. I love Thomas, but Denver's offense can't possibly produce at the same level it did last season. Green is my guy. I've been getting him in the second round of mock drafts and giggling from my keyboard.

Wes Welker recently suffered his third concussion in the last 12 months, but you might be able to draft him as a WR3, which could pay off without too much risk. I really like Emmanuel Sanders in the mid-to-late rounds. Peyton Manning's number three wide receiver is going to catch plenty of balls, and Sanders will get even more work if concussions become a problem for Welker. Do not, however, draft Sanders in the same position you would have drafted a healthy Welker. Sanders is a WR3 in most leagues.

For WR2, I've been targeting Randall Cobb, Cordarrelle Patterson, Jeremy Maclin, and T.Y. Hilton. Cobb will produce WR1 numbers if he and Aaron Rodgers are on the field together. Patterson was all-pro as a kick returner last season, and he's got really tremendous upside. No one seems to believe Maclin can stay healthy, but he's the top receiver for an explosive, fast-paced offense. If he's on the field, he'll be a monster. Hilton is just undervalued. He's going to catch 80 passes for 1,000 yards again. I also suspect that one of the Rams' wide receivers is due to blow up this year. Tavon Austin is obviously the favorite, but a last-round gamble on one of the others might yield real value. Sam Bradford's injury is a bummer but not the end of the world.

There are several potential deals on veteran receivers later in the draft, but the one that jumps out to me is Anquan Boldin. With Michael Crabtree healthy, he won't see the same number of targets he did last year. But Boldin was the 15th-highest scoring fantasy WR in 2013, and he's something like the 40th-ranked WR in average draft position, even though he's healthy. In leagues larger than eight teams, Boldin is a steal as your WR4.

Tight End

I really like having a good fantasy TE. It's always a position I target. I'm not sure I even have a good reason for it, but I like to get one of the top guys. Jimmy Graham is the clear first choice this year, and he should go in the first round of every league. My second choice is Julius Thomas. With Welker's availability in question, and Eric Decker and Knowshon Moreno gone, there will be some extra balls to go around in Denver, and I expect Thomas to catch a lot of them.

I also like the idea of drafting Rob Gronkowski, who produces WR1 numbers when he's healthy, and supplementing with a strong backup. If Gronk stays healthy, your TE2 can play in the flex and you screwed someone else out of a starter. The absolute treasure at TE2, or a late TE1, is Washington's Jordan Reed. He got injured and missed the end of last season, but for the month before that, he was RG3's favorite target. I wouldn't be a bit surprised to see him catch 80 passes this season. I am not on board with Kyle Rudolph. I'd rather have Reed, Jason Witten, or Charles Clay. Miami's Clay is coming off a knee injury, but he's incredibly undervalued, a TE2 steal who will probably produce like a TE1.

Team Defense

My primary fantasy league doesn't use this position, so it's not something I follow closely, but my friend GG's league switched last year to an FAAB system. In that format, I'm all about playing the matchups. Figure out who's playing a bad offense, and spend $1 or $2 a week to pick them up. The Baltimore Ravens are my favorite early-season defense, because they get the Bengals at home in Week 1, and the Steelers at home in Week 2. I also like Carolina, Cincinnati, Kansas City, and New England for their Week 1 matchups.

The final word on Adrian Peterson: proceed with caution. Barry Sanders and Walter Payton are the only RBs in history to produce at an elite level again following a season like Peterson's 2013. Draft him understanding that the realistic upside is just a top-10 season, not another 2,000 yards. Even if Peterson hasn't lost a step — which is very optimistic — he plays on an offense that isn't expected to light up scoreboards, and he may not get as many touchdown opportunities as owners would like. Peterson also is a less appealing pick in PPR leagues, since he's caught fewer than 30 passes in two of the last three seasons. You shouldn't take him ahead of Forte, and I'd think twice before drafting AP if Jimmy Graham or Calvin Johnson is still available.

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