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Can Adrian Peterson and Jamaal Charles Outrun History?

Not many running backs keep producing at a high level after turning 30, but Peterson and Charles could both thrive in the right situation

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Father Time is having one hell of a Tuesday. In the course of about an hour, two of the league’s most prolific running backs found themselves without jobs, as the Vikings announced they would not be picking up the 2017 option for Adrian Peterson and the Chiefs released Jamaal Charles. Neither move is a shock: Both players are on the wrong side of 30 years old and both will carry a history of knee injuries into next year. Charles, who sits atop the league’s all-time yards-per-carry list, would’ve had a $6.2 million cap hit for the 2017 season and Peterson, who’s fourth all-time in yards per carry, would’ve counted for $18 million against the cap.

Both teams freed up money to make moves elsewhere, but they did so by jettisoning the faces of their respective franchises. With two of the greatest running backs the league has ever seen hitting free agency, the implications reverberate across the NFL.

What It Means for the Vikings

Peterson is Minnesota’s all-time rushing yards and touchdowns leader, and over the past decade he’s been the team’s one truly dominant superstar. While the former MVP and the team are still hinting at a possible reunion this year, there’s a real chance we’ve seen Peterson in a Vikings uniform for the last time.

On paper, Minnesota won’t look a whole lot different next season compared to last season. Peterson ran the ball just 37 times for 72 yards and no touchdowns in 2016 before a meniscus tear in Week 2 erased most of his season. Even before he got hurt, the days of relying on Peterson to put the offense on his back and carry it down the field appeared to be over: He was ineffective behind the Vikings’ porous offensive line, averaging just 1.9 yards per carry, forcing Minnesota to rely more heavily on its passing attack under Sam Bradford. The imbalance persisted after Peterson got hurt, too: The Vikings finished dead last in rushing yards (1,205) and yards per attempt (3.2), just a year after finishing fourth (2,211) and third (4.7) in the same categories.

Still, even though it’s already been a year in the making, the identity the Vikings cultivated with the bruising, tackle-breaking machine at the head of a downhill, smashmouth run offense appears to be dead — or at least on hiatus. Minnesota may work to re-emphasize the run game by retooling the fragile offensive line in free agency and the draft, but with relatively few resources to use in either, we may see that uncharacteristic pass-heavy offense again in 2017.

What It Means for the Chiefs

Since Kansas City drafted him 2008, Charles has been one of the NFL’s most exciting and explosive players, but his release doesn’t change much about what the Chiefs will do in 2017. Charles hasn’t played a significant role for the club in two years — he missed all but five games in 2015 after tearing his ACL and had only 12 carries last year as he encountered complications in his rehab — and in his absence, Spencer Ware and Charcandrick West have combined to step in and carry the load. It’s nearly impossible to replace a guy who’s averaged 5.5 yards per carry on over 1,300 reps, but the pair has been serviceable: In 2015, West took the baton from Charles and finished with 634 yards and four touchdowns on 160 carries, then last season, Ware was the lead back and led the team with 921 yards and three touchdowns on 214 totes.

Like Minnesota, the Chiefs have undergone a bit of an identity change without their star player, but with the emergence of receiver Tyreek Hill and the development of tight end Travis Kelce into a true star, Kansas City was able to manufacture explosive plays without needing Charles to weave through traffic and take a screen pass 40 yards downfield for a touchdown. The offense has evolved without Charles, too: They went from the 14th-ranked pass offense per DVOA in 2015 to the 10th-ranked squad in 2016, but their top-ranked run offense from 2015 fell to 20th last season.

For Kansas City, it’s an emotional loss more than anything. After his rookie year, Charles carried the offense for the Chiefs in the five seasons he was healthy (2009, 2010, and 2012 to 2014), but the club clearly felt that at his age (30) and with his history of knee injuries, he carried too great of a risk at such a high price.

What It Means for the Rest of the League

While both players were among the league’s elite producers in their prime, Peterson and Charles are question marks going into 2017. But despite their declining prospects, the duo is bound to shake up a weak free-agent running back market that’s filled with a bunch of other players with age and injury concerns, like LeGarrette Blount, Eddie Lacy, Rashad Jennings, Danny Woodhead, DeAngelo Williams, Darren McFadden, Chris Johnson, and Joique Bell. In the end, Peterson and Charles may actually end up being two of the most sought-after backs in the group.

To succeed in a new setting, though, both need to find the right fit. For Peterson, it comes down to what type of team he wants to play for and what type of role he’d accept. Soon to be 32, he’d likely prefer to play for a contender, but not many Super Bowl–caliber teams are in need of a three-down sustainer. (Other than the Cowboys, none of the top teams employs the downhill run scheme Peterson would work best in.) Plus, if he does manage to find someone that needs to him to carry the load, can he still do it? Since the 1970 merger, a running back 32 years old or older has rushed for 1,000 yards with at least 4.0 yards per carry just four times. Those are long odds, and while Peterson’s physical ability deserves its own scale — he’s always been an incredibly fast healer and won the MVP award in 2012 just 14 months after tearing his ACL — teams will see the long-established history of older players at the position as a major red flag. More likely, anyone (other than Minnesota) showing interest in Peterson would project him to fill a complementary role. Supposedly the Cowboys are interested, because Jerry Jones. But it’s unclear if Peterson would be OK with a backup role or if he even has the receiving skills necessary to be an auxiliary back.

Charles is a different case. He may never regain the explosiveness that he once possessed as a runner, but he’s always been very dangerous out of the backfield as a pass catcher, especially in the screen game (see: his 285 career receptions and 20 touchdowns). He’d make a great complementary back in a number of offenses and could feature either on early downs or on passing downs. Charles’s ability to play in shotgun-heavy looks for pass-happy clubs should attract a more diverse set of suitors than Peterson’s rigid style.

Neither player will sign a huge contract, and it’s unlikely that either guy becomes the featured back with his new team. The weirdest part of this all, though, will be seeing Peterson and Charles in colors other than purple and red.