Adrian Peterson is likely going to be a first-ballot entrant into the NFL Hall of Fame. For now, though, he is a free agent looking for a new team. Under normal circumstances, adding a 36-year-old running back wouldn’t be a smart decision. However, despite his overall level of play declining in recent seasons, the advanced metrics show that Peterson can still provide value to an NFL offense.
Adrian Peterson’s box score statistics from 2020 were still competitive
After a pair of solid seasons with the Washington Football Team, Peterson signed with the Detroit Lions in 2020. In his debut season with the Lions, Peterson ran for 604 yards and 7 touchdowns. On the surface, those are decent statistics, especially for a running back of Peterson’s age.
That said, those numbers do represent the continuation of a worrying trend of declining statistics for Peterson in recent seasons. In 2018, his first season in Washington, Peterson rushed for 1,042 yards. The next year, that total fell to 898. If his numbers continue to decline at that rate, Peterson will be contributing almost nothing before long.
In fairness to Peterson, the Lions took a far more committee-based approach to their backfield than Washington did. While Washington used Peterson as their primary back, in Detroit, he split carries with D’Andre Swift. Despite that, Peterson was still the Lions’ primary producer on the ground, outgaining Swift by about 80 yards. In that context, his 604 yards seem far more reasonable.
The advanced metrics also portray Peterson favorably
Like his traditional statistics, Peterson’s advanced metrics have stayed competitive over the last few years. According to the Offensive Value Metric (OVM), a grading system created by the (Bx) Movement to evaluate players based on how effective a player was given their circumstances, Peterson remained one of the most efficient running backs in the NFL last season.
In 2020, he earned an OVM grade of 9.76. At first glance, that might not seem like a particularly high number. However, it is essential to remember that running back OVM grades tend to be lower than those earned by players at other positions.
When compared to other running backs, Peterson performed reasonably well, with his grade ranking 18th out of 55 qualifying players. Although not an elite grade, Peterson still did a better job of filling his role than many running backs currently filling NFL rosters.
Peterson’s OVM grades have been fluctuating for several years
Although Peterson’s grade compared favorably to other running backs last season, it is worth noting that it — like his box score statistics — fell in 2020, comparing poorly to a stellar 2019 performance.
In 2019, he earned a grade of 16.85, significantly higher than what he received in 2020. Clearly, Peterson’s impact on his offense fell dramatically over the last two seasons.
Nevertheless, it is worth noting that Peterson’s OVM grades haven’t been consistently trending downwards in the same way his box score statistics have. Instead, his play has been fluctuating from season to season, earning a grade of 11.23 in 2018 and 18.61 in 2017.
These numbers don’t appear to represent a downward trend in the same way that his box score statistics do. Perhaps 2021 could be another rebound year for Peterson.
Examining the advanced metrics behind Adrian Peterson’s OVM grades
In order to explain the changes in Peterson’s grades over the last two seasons, we need to look at the advanced metrics involved in calculating a running back’s OVM grade.
In 2020, the primary factor increasing Peterson’s grade was the amount of time he saw eight or more defenders around the line of scrimmage. When he was in the backfield, he found himself in that situation 29.49% of the time. That was the 16th-highest percentage in the NFL.
Most of his other metrics were unimpressive, often ranking below the league average. However, those statistics become much easier to excuse when you consider his difficult circumstances, which made rushing efficiently far more challenging.
Interestingly, Peterson was in that scenario a virtually identical percentage of the time the season before, at 29.38%. However, he also had better statistics in every other area the OVM takes into account, explaining his higher grade. He was in similarly challenging situations but performed better within them.
Examining Peterson’s weekly grades
For a further examination of Adrian Peterson’s performance over the last two NFL seasons, let’s take a look at his weekly OVM grades. Below, you can see a pair of charts showing Peterson’s grades from each week of those seasons represented by the black dots. For comparison, the yellow lines represent the regular-season average grade for running backs during those respective years.
Looking at these charts, the first thing that you will probably notice is that Peterson earned fewer grades in 2020 than he did in 2019. Due to his lower role in the offense last season, he didn’t qualify for a grade as often. The other major takeaway from them, and the more relevant one for our purposes, is that Peterson was actually far more inconsistent in 2019 than in 2020.
In 2019, his grades ranged from 0.53 to 32.79. Last season, on the other hand, he had a far lower peak, at 22.81, but a similarly disparate floor, at 8.25. As such, while Peterson’s overall grades indicate that he was less effective on average in 2020 than in 2019, he was a more consistent player in the latter season.
Lack of receiving abilities hurts his chances of getting signed
The fact that Peterson has yet to be picked up by an NFL team might have something to do with his limitations as a receiver. In Detroit last season, he was only targeted 18 times, resulting in 12 receptions for 101 yards.
That isn’t a new phenomenon; Peterson has only totaled more than 300 receiving yards twice in his career and hasn’t done so since 2010. Therefore, that lack of versatility likely hurts Peterson’s chances of finding a new team.
Any organization looking to add a running back who can contribute in the passing game won’t even look in Peterson’s direction. The only teams that would be interested are those looking for an early-down running back.
Peterson can still be a valuable contributor to an NFL offense
Peterson is clearly no longer the player he once was. That said, the statistics show that he is still a solid player. He could be a capable contributor to an offense in need of a boost at running back.
In many ways, the fact that I can write those words sincerely is impressive in its own right. Peterson is an old man playing a young man’s game at an even younger man’s position. And yet, he is still outperforming many of his more youthful counterparts. That is worth celebrating, even if his career is likely nearing its end.
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