peterson-standing2

Let’s begin by noting that while every year this debate┬ánaturally gets a lot of attention and it receives a lot of digital space, there isn’t a wrong answer, really. No, there are just better answers, and answers that are less wrong than others.

Indeed, the discussion about who should be the first overall pick in fantasy football usually lasts throughout the summer months. There’s the odd exception during a year when the answer seems abundantly obvious, and we just move on to arguing about something else, because yelling is what we do best. That nearly happened last year when Arian Foster was widely viewed as the most logical option, but those who saw far too much value in ballooning quarterback numbers still made their case for Aaron Rodgers.

So before we get into rankings and mock drafts and the really important stuff like the proper attire for your fantasy draft (minimal…always minimal), addressing the very start of the draft seems like a fine place to, um, start.

Over the next few days we’ll evaluate the leading options for the top pick, and explore them in depth. There are really only a few reasonable choices, and the first is the name directly below. The one that’s bolded and underlined. Can’t miss it.

Adrian Peterson

I don’t need to list the statistical evidence here, but since this is a game where numbers sort of matter, I’ll do it anyway. With his 2,097 rushing yards last season, Peterson finished just nine yards short of breaking Eric Dickerson’s single-season rushing record, and remarkably, he did that while averaging six yards per carry and 131.1 per game. Nuts, I know.

Add his 217 receiving yards to that and 13 total touchdowns, and you get 298 fantasy points in 2012. That easily led all running backs, as Peterson’s point total was well ahead of Arian Foster’s 250.5. Even more impressively, Peterson was the only non-quarterback to finish among the top 10 overall in fantasy scoring.

We’re all aware that what Peterson did while returning from a severe knee injury isn’t something that normal humans do, and therefore expecting that effort to be duplicated in 2013 is equally absurd. However, there’s a case for consistency:

  • Including 2012, Peterson has scored exactly 12 rushing touchdowns four times over his six seasons.
  • If we exclude his injury-shortened 2011 season and generously give him two whole yards in 2010 (his real rushing total was 1,298 that year), Peterson’s had five seasons with 1,300 yards or more.
  • He’s also had five seasons with an average of 4.5 yards or more per carry.
  • And a moderate three seasons with over 300 carries.

Even if we cut out touchdowns and consider them a somewhat unpredictable variable, Peterson is still averaging 172.9 fantasy points per season on his overall yardage alone.

Much of the case against him as the top overall fantasy pick lies in a fear of history, and the fragile logic that since an event has happened in the past, it will continue to happen in the future. USA Today’s Greg Kellogg outlined his case against Peterson thusly:

We know that about 60% of the top five by position will fall out of that lofty ranking each year. In fact, over the past six seasons only the tight end position has had more than 50% of the Top 5 repeat the following season (17-of-30). Running backs (33%) and wide receivers (23%) are particularly volatile.

Inconsistency and the volatile nature of the NFL running back is scary, but only if your expectations aren’t aligned correctly. Again, relying on another 2,000-yard season is the stuff that shattered dreams are made of, over and over. But Peterson’s aforementioned personal history goes against the other kind of history Kellogg speaks of, and if he falls to his career single-season rushing average prior to 2012, then so be it. That number is still a fine 1,350.4.

The true fear lies in Peterson’s workload, and the pounding he’s adsorbed. But even that can depend on which narrative you’d like to spin. You could go back through his six seasons, and note that including the playoffs Peterson has now logged three years with 360 or more carries, meaning that in half of the seasons he’s been employed as a professional running back, he’s taken a whole lot of spearings.

Or instead you could note that his carry total last year (370) still isn’t quite a career high, as it fell short of his 383 in 2008. Then you could also note that, at worst, the effect those heavy-carry years have on Peterson the following season is scattered.

In 2008 he rushed for 1,843 yards (again, including the playoffs), and then the following year that number fell slightly but still noticeably to 1,585, a difference of 258 yards. Fair enough, but what of 2010 then? After 368 carries in 2009, Peterson rushed for 1,298 yards. Aha! That shrunk again! Technically that’s a true statement, but Peterson’s 2010 yardage came on 85 fewer carries, a much larger gap then the difference of 15 between 2008 and 2009. So this is me shrugging my shoulders.

We can continue with this back and forth, and dig even further into history. We can note that Dickerson had a colossal tumble in rushing yardage after he set the single-season record with 2,105 yards in 1984, when he fell to 1,234 yards the next season while missing two games. But we can also kindly observe that the season prior to his record-setting year, Dickerson had 1,808 yards, and he did that on 390 carries, his second highest single-season carry total.

Of course, Dickerson is the outlier, a status he may hold forever. He was just 24 during his record-setting season, and Peterson turned 28 a few months ago. Is that age gap and Peterson’s more prolonged pounding enough to make you apprehensive, and believe that he’ll follow the more common path of other +2,000-yard rushers like Jamaal Lewis (who fell to 1,006 yards the following season), O.J. Simpson (1,125), or — gasp with me — the injury crushed Terrell Davis (211)?

It could be, and I can’t fault you for a little bit of fear, especially since at its core, fantasy football is a game of managing risk. That fright gets worse when we remember that no 2,000 rusher has topped 1,500 in the following season, which is why NFL Network’s Michael Fabiano is ranking Foster ahead of Peterson.

But consider what Peterson did without the support of Percy Harvin this past season when he was the sole driver of Minnesota’s offense. Harvin went down in Week 9, and in the seven games that followed Peterson rushed for 1,140 yards, an incredible 162.9 yards per game during a stretch which included two weeks with over 200 yards. He still may be dealing with mediocre quarterback support in the form of Christian Ponder, but now said replacement QB is tossing to Greg Jennings and first-round pick Cordarrelle Patterson, new-found weapons which should help to cushion Peterson’s fall back to somewhere around his career rushing average, if that tumble begins.

There’s a case to be made for Foster (stay tuned…please), but for me, what Peterson has done as the central figure in the Vikings offense is the separating factor.