USA TODAY Sports’ Lindsay H. Jones looks at how offseason changes in the NFC West will affect the division’s 2017 NFL season.
USA TODAY Sports
Let Sean Payton tell you what he thinks he needs to give to Adrian Peterson, whose fresh start with the New Orleans Saints is wrapped with the purpose of proving that he is far from washed up.
“Creativity is important,” Payton told USA TODAY Sports over the weekend. “I think the players want to know you were up at 11:45 on Thursday night thinking about a play with their name on it. When the players feel that, there’s that return on the investment.”
In stock market terms, the Saints coach is hardly selling Peterson short. He’s buying him long.
There’s also plenty of reasons to be bullish on Peterson because he’s now teaming up with Payton, one of the NFL’s most creative — and aggressive — offensive minds.
Sure, Peterson is 32, an age when running backs are expected to have fallen off or approaching a cliff. In 10 years of violent runs, he logged 2,418 carries. His final season with the Minnesota Vikings in 2016 ended ingloriously in September, with a torn lateral meniscus that resulted in another surgery.
Yet Peterson has defied history before — he came back from reconstructive knee surgery to rush for a near-NFL record 2,097 yards — and Payton has seen enough pop and burst this offseason to expect that there’s plenty left.
Besides, we’re talking about Peterson, the three-time NFL rushing champ who wears pride on his sleeves.
“I don’t want to say ‘chip on his shoulder,’” Payton said, having watched Peterson in non-contact practices last week. “But there’s a standard that he’s used to playing at, and that’s important to him.”
Peterson didn’t speak after the Thursday session that was the first of the spring open to the media, but during a conference call after signing a two-year free agent deal in April left no confusion about his mindset.
“One thing I really dislike about the NFL is how people kind of put guys in a box, especially running backs after that 30 mark,” Peterson said, via ESPN.com. “So in my mind, I feel like I have a lot years left.”
We’ll see. I surely wouldn’t bet against him, and if I had to project a Comeback Player of the Year for the coming season, Peterson is my choice.
That runs deeper, however, than Peterson merely staying healthy and barreling over linebackers. This has to fit. Peterson, a bell-cow runner who averaged roughly 20 carries per game with the Vikings, joins a unit built around the arm of Drew Brees, who led the NFL’s top-ranked offense in 2016 with a league-high 5,208 passing yards and 70% completion rate.
Then there’s Mark Ingram. The Saints have a lead runner in tow with Ingram, who notched his first 1,000-yard rushing season in 2016 by averaging 12.2 carries per game.
It’s fair to wonder how Payton will get the most out of Peterson, of whom he knows has a track record for burning defenses with big plays after he’s worn them down in the second half.
“My biggest challenge will be managing the touches with Mark and Adrian,” Payton said. “I’d rather have that challenge than wondering if Ingram is healthy.”
NFL seasons are long and grueling. It’s tough to project exactly how things will flow with the backfield rotation, but the more healthy options the better. Ingram sat out the Thursday practice due to an undisclosed injury, leaving Peterson to work extensively with the first-team offense.
If Payton fields the more consistent power rushing game he envisions (since logging 468 rushing attempts en route to a Super Bowl crown during the 2009 season, the Saints haven’t hit that mark again), Peterson figures to be a key. And some of the offseason moves, including the signing of right guard Larry Warford and the first-round pick of Wisconsin tackle Ryan Ramczyk, backs up the sentiment.
During the non-contact drills, though, Peterson provided a glimpse of a dimension of his game that could impact the offense — as a receiver out of the backfield — that was hardly his forte with the Vikings. Peterson averaged slightly less than 2 catches per game during his years with the Vikings, although it’s worth noting that the highest two-season total of catches by Peterson (79) came in the two seasons he played with Brett Favre in 2009 and 2010.
Now he joins forces with Brees. At one moment early in practice on Thursday, Peterson caught an intermediate seam pass from Brees that prompted Payton to gush to an assistant.
“Man, I’m going to get 15 questions with that catch right there,” Payton recalled. “But he catches it smooth.”
Payton realizes it’s too early to hone in on game-planning — and Week 1 will provide Peterson with a shot at the Vikings — while using the offseason workouts to install the offense and get familiar with his talent. But it’s not too early to get his creative juices flowing when thinking of ways to deploy Peterson and Ingram.
Asked if he’ll have packages with both running backs in the same backfield, Payton allowed, “Very easily.”
Years ago, he explained, he had a “Pony Package” with Deuce McAllister and Reggie Bush in the backfield. Bush was typically the “Joker” aligned in the slot. It’s all about creating matchup problems.
“If Mark and Adrian are out there together, the main thing is, ‘What are we looking to do?’” Payton said. “There has to be a bigger goal than just keeping both of them happy.”
Still, in the grand scheme, that’s a good problem.
Follow NFL columnist Jarrett Bell on Twitter @JarrettBell
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