NFL scouts, executives and head coaches have converged on Indianapolis for the annual league Combine, attempting to find the next great running back and the prospective future of their franchises. The future seems bright for college rushers like Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon and Georgia’s Todd Gurley, but two veteran and accomplished running backs appear to have few, if any options heading into the 2015 season.
After their involvement in separate scandals last season, the returns of both running backs Adrian Peterson and Ray Rice remain unclear as the new NFL year gets underway.
As of now, Peterson said he’s unsure if he will return to the Minnesota Vikings next year. Rice, on the other hand, appears short of any suitors and his football career could be in serious jeopardy.
Peterson, who turns 30 in March, told ESPN Thursday that he was “still uneasy” about a possible return to the Vikings after he was placed on the commissioner’s exempt list for the final 15 games of the 2014 season following child abuse charges filed against him in Texas.
Expressing adoration and appreciation towards Minnesota fans, Peterson left the door open for him to leave the only NFL team he’s ever known.
"It's hard to say (what my future will be). I love Minnesota,” Peterson said. “There are people that have had my back, and supported me. Last year, with the things that took place, had a lot of fans that supported me through everything. For the fans, I would definitely love to come back, but then again, it's a business, when it comes down to business, you can't get caught up in the loyalty to fans or to a team or anything like that. You know how it is in the NFL.
“I learned a lot through this process. I'm still uneasy, to be honest with you. I'm still uneasy about a lot of things that took place within the organization. Of course those guys ultimately supported me, and I'm grateful for that. But ultimately, with me being able to be on the inside and see how cards were dealt, how things were worded, this, that and the other, it's about protecting your brand, your organization, what you have built. In the (grand) scheme of things, not one person counts over that. I get that."
The NFL Players Association is currently suing the league in federal court, hoping to get Peterson reinstated immediately. However, unless the court rules in his favor, Peterson won’t be able to rejoin the Vikings, or any other team, until April 15.
The Vikings have expressed a desire to bring Peterson back, with team president and owner Mark Wilf being the highest ranking executive to do so earlier this month. And team general manager Rick Spielman told NFL.com he “expects” Peterson back.
However, if Peterson feels betrayed or questions some of the team’s back channeling during his and his family’s tumultuous year, his future could lay elsewhere.
Since Minnesota selected him No. 7 overall in the 2007 NFL Draft, Peterson has arguably been the best running back in the NFL. Losing such a productive player would constitute a major change in direction for a franchise coming off a promising 7-9 season under rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. In Peterson's absence, the Vikings turned to Matt Asiata and Jerick McKinnon, and the duo combined to rush for just 1,108 yards -- far short of a typical Peterson season.
In seven full seasons, Peterson’s rushed for more than 1,200 yards six times, and garnered league MVP honors in 2012 for an astounding 2,097 yards and 12 touchdowns, topping Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning as the NFL’s most decorated player.
Unless Peterson’s apparent displeasure with the franchise changes, the Vikings could release him at the rather miniscule cost of $2.7 million, compared to the roughly $56 million in salary they contractually owe him until 2017.
It would also spare the Vikings the headache of a possible public relations fall out with fans, some of whom would disapprove of the team employing a player who reached a plea deal for child abuse charges in November.
However, releasing Peterson will automatically make him an unrestricted free agent, affording him the right to sign with any NFL team willing to wait out his likely suspension by the league. One of the biggest fears for the Vikings must involve Peterson signing on with any of their NFC North rivals.
Already very familiar with the division’s terrain, the Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions or Green Bay Packers could be potential suitors for Peterson, if they are willing to look past his discretions.
While Peterson is likely to catch on with an NFL team in the coming months, Rice’s career prospects are extremely bleak, according to ESPN’s Jamison Hensley.
Rice, 27, is free to sign with any NFL team but none have been in contact with him since he was reinstated in November, ESPN reported last week.
Still atoning for domestic violence charges, which were vividly illustrated to the world after TMZ released elevator security footage of Rice striking his then-fiancee and now-wife Janay, the former Baltimore Raven issued any apology to the city’s fans last week.
But so far the apology hasn’t increased any interest in Rice.
The lack of interest might have more to do with Rice’s production on the field. Before the video was released, Rice was coming off his worst season since his rookie year. In 2013 he rushed for 660 yards and four touchdowns, averaging 3.1 yards per carry. By missing an entire season, teams would be taking a risk in signing Rice.
Rice’s prospects are likely worsened by an especially crowded running back free-agent market. Veterans like the San Francisco 49ers’ Frank Gore, the New York Jets’ Chris Johnson, and younger backs like the Buffalo Bills’ C.J. Spiller, the San Diego Chargers’ Ryan Mathews, and New Orleans Saints’ Mark Ingram are all up for new deals next month.