Is Adrian Peterson Really the 3rd Best Player in the NFL?


It only took about six months (that’s what it felt like anyway) but NFL Network finally got around to revealing the top 10 on their list of the 100 best players in the NFL. As expected, the Vikings’ Adrian Peterson was among the elite 10. Perhaps unexpectedly, Peterson was actually ranked all the way up at #3, behind only #1 Tom Brady and #2 Peyton Manning (in case you missed it, here’s the whole top 10).

Think about what this ranking really means. Not only are the 400 players polled saying Peterson is the best running back in the league – won’t get much argument from anyone not named Chris Johnson – but that, outside of Manning and Brady, he’s the best offensive performer period. Better than Drew Brees. Better than Philip Rivers. Better than Aaron Rodgers.

Given what some of those listed above have accomplished statistically and in terms of championships, to rank Peterson above them is a striking statement…or is it? Maybe not. The thing to keep in mind, I believe, is that the players are not going to come at this kind of thing the same way fans or sportswriters might. We may give great weight to stats and records, in which case Peterson’s #3 is going to be a tad controversial, but the players…not so much.

Clearly, the players have a unique perspective, and I think this shows up in their rankings, especially the top 10. Above all, I believe Peterson’s high mark is a sign of the other players’ respect for his otherworldly physical gifts. Quite simply, Adrian Peterson does things on a football field no one’s ever seen before. His athletic freakishness is naturally going to be appreciated more by those who play with and against him than by laymen or even non-playing experts.

This must be how many or most of the players came at it. Because, if you look at it statistically and in terms of Peterson’s impact wins-and-losses-wise – the kind of stuff wonks and fans might be more interested in – I don’t think you can legitimately argue for Peterson being #3. Going by last year, I don’t think you can argue for Peyton Manning being anywhere near #2 either. But clearly the players who participated in the poll are looking beyond small statistical samples, even beyond wins-and-losses, to something more esoteric. They’ve been on the same field with Manning, they’ve seen what he can do, and they respect him that much.

That’s fine with me. I accept the list on its own terms. And, on its own terms, ranking Peterson #3 makes as much sense as ranking a fading Manning #2 or an almost-over-the-hill Ray Lewis #4. In the cases of Lewis and Manning, there’s obviously a lifetime achievement element at work. In Peterson’s case, as I said before, it’s more about raw physical prowess.

For the sake of whipping up an argument (and making a longer post out of this) let’s consider Peterson on our own fannish bloggery terms. Does he really deserve to be considered one of the very best players in the league? Top 3? Even top 10? Were I to make a case against Peterson – something I’m hesitant to do, this being a Vikings blog and all – I would point out these things:

#1. You could argue the Vikings’ offense has been better the last couple of years at those times when Peterson’s role has been diminished. Brett Favre and Sidney Rice were the real offensive stars in 2009, not so much Peterson. The offense has tended to struggle when the strategy becomes Peterson left, Peterson right, hope your QB (not always 2009-level Brett Favre) converts the 3rd-and-5.

#2. As Peterson’s detractors never tire of pointing out, AD has a habit of wilting in prime time. The NFC title game two years ago was only the most glaring example of this. Until AD does something legendary in a meaningful game, it’s hard to throw him in there with Manning, Brady, Brees, Polamalu, Reed…even Rodgers and Matthews.

#3. His statistics have been very good but, except for one year, not dominating. And even that dominating year was not epic like Chris Johnson’s 2000-yard season. Really solid most of the time and occasionally brilliant equals third best player in the league?

And now, for the sake of fairness, I will shoot down my own arguments:

#1. Offense being better without him: Not Peterson’s fault. Brad Childress didn’t know how to use him. The offensive line was not as good as it should’ve been. With a smart coach, a good O-line and competent non-diva quarterbacking, Peterson could be the centerpiece of a truly great offense.

#2. Wilting in prime time: He hasn’t had enough chances. He was actually pretty good in the playoff game against the Eagles (the one the Vikings lost because of Tarvaris Jackson). It’s not fair to hold one terrible fumble-ridden game against him. Besides he’s improved in the fumbling department. If the Vikings hadn’t imploded at QB and in the defensive backfield last year, maybe they could’ve made a run, and maybe he could’ve contributed.

#3. Somewhat unimpressive stats: Stats are for losers. Besides, imagine his stats if he’d had a real offensive line and head coach all those years. We’d be talking Hall-of-Fame already.

Taking these arguments all together and a few other nitpicky things (still not a very good receiver, seems to lack vision at times, can’t block to save his life), the case for Peterson at #3 becomes shaky. In all honestly, I think the case for him in the top 10 becomes shaky. What isn’t arguable is that he is a physical freak who possesses the potential to dominate at any moment. I just wish he would live up to that potential a little more often.

Like I said before, I think the players voted AD so high (higher than I would) because they’re simply in awe of his physical ability. They know how hard it is to play football, so they really and truly appreciate a man like AD who makes sick plays. That’s how Julius Peppers and Andre Johnson made the top 10. Players admire the great athletes who put their athletic ability to use. They’re not so into the stats and the wins-and-losses arguments.

Either way, it’s fun knowing there’s at least one Viking player who can still move the needle nationally. See everyone? There is life after Favre.

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