Adrian Peterson Returns to the NFC North, But He May Not Have a Big Role With the Detroit Lions

Mandatory Credit: Scott Taetsch-USA TODAY Sports

It didn’t take Adrian Peterson long to find a new place to renew his pursuit of Emmitt Smith’s all-time NFL rushing record. After getting released by the Washington Football Team on Friday morning, word quickly spread by the time football fans were enjoying their final Sunday brunch of the NFL offseason that Peterson would be signing a one-year, incentive-laden deal with the Detroit Lions.

Welcome back to the NFC North, AD!

Assuming he sticks around with the Lions for the full season and doesn’t wear out his welcome as he did in New Orleans in 2017, he’ll get to face his old team twice in 2020. How much work he’ll actually do against the Vikings remains to be seen, though, because he’s not stepping into an immediate feature back role.

In moving from D.C. to Motown, Peterson goes from one crowded backfield to another. In Detroit, however, there seems to be a little more of an established pecking order… for now.

Lions’ 2018 second-round draft pick Kerryon Johnson is slotted in as the Week 1 starter; however, his two seasons have been watered down by injuries. Johnson has appeared in just 18 of the Lions’ 32 games the past two seasons, raising legitimate concerns about his durability. It was assumed that this year’s second-round draft pick, D’Andre Swift, would be sharing the workload with Johnson this season, and at some point, maybe even supplant him as the starter – such as if and when Johnson sustains his next injury. However, Swift was limited by a leg injury of his own in training camp and fell behind. As such, the Lions’ plan had morphed into having Swift open as the clear-cut No. 2 back.

And then Peterson became available.

In joining the Lions, Peterson reunites with offensive coordinator Darrell Bevel, so there is some immediate familiarity with the system and coaching style. If needed, Peterson could step in right away for a small role in a package of plays to give Johnson a break and provide Swift a chance to fully recuperate and catch up to speed. That appears to be the initial thinking in terms of a Week 1 game plan.

Beyond that, the weirdness of 2020 will dictate how things pan out and what kind of workload Peterson carves out. If we know anything about Peterson, it’s that he wants as many carries as possible because each one brings him closer to Emmitt’s record, on which he has always been laser-focused. By the way, the next rung on the NFL’s All-Time rushing ladder ahead of Peterson is occupied by Lions great, Barry Sanders.

As a reminder, here’s the career rushing yards leaderboard as we enter the 2020 season:

1.      Emmitt Smith – 18,355
2.      Walter Payton – 16,726
3.      Frank Gore – 15,347
4.      Barry Sanders – 15,269
5.      Adrian Peterson – 14,216

In other words, Peterson has some work to do. He managed 1,940 yards over his two seasons in Washington, where he received over 200 carries each season. It’s not even a given that he’ll get 100 carries in Detroit this season. If Johnson remains healthy and Swift gets it together, there is little incentive for the Lions to feature Peterson. Then again, Johnson’s injury history strongly hints there should be an opportunity for more than an insurance plan role for AD.

One other factor to consider in Peterson’s record quest: Since Sanders retired, there have only been four 1,000-yard seasons by Lions running backs. The last was in 2013 when Reggie Bush had 1,006 yards. Before that, it was Kevin Jones in 2004 with 1,133 yards and James Stewart, who topped 1,000 in 2002 (1,021) and 2000 (1,184).

The collective malaise that annually seems to infect the Lions’ running back room will be tough to overcome.

Looking around the league, however, Peterson wasn’t going to step into a bell-cow role anywhere else. Detroit is probably as good as fit as any for him, especially given the Bevell connection.

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