Adrian Peterson is inarguably the best pure runner in football.
His 211 yard performance against Chicago in Week 13 carried the Vikings to an overtime victory, further cemented his ranking as the league-leader in rushing yards, and put him over 10,000 yards for his career.
No one doubts that the two-time rushing champ and defending Most Valuable Player is playing like one of the all-time greats, and given his recent milestone, it's fair to start asking where he ranks in the pantheon of the great runners to ever play the game.
Though he ranks just 27th all-time in rushing yards, by the end of the 2014 season, he'll likely vault into the top 13. Eleven of the 12 eligible runners left ahead of him at that point on the list are already in the Hall of Fame (Edgerrin James and LaDainian Tomlinson are not yet eligible for induction).
Where does Peterson rate? A quick scan of the best that ever were shows he is a long shot to be considered one of the five greatest backs of all time.
The 15 Best Backs Ever
The running back position is about more than just running the football. Some of the most devastating runners ever were also elite pass catchers. To properly evaluate running backs, it's important to consider rushing yards, receiving yards as well as touchdowns and yards per carry.
Somewhat conveniently, no matter what criteria you use to select them, the list of best running backs ever breaks closely along the career rushing totals.
After the top 14 backs on the all-time list, there's a reasonably clear dividing line to the second tier down. While it's possible to argue that an all-around back like Tiki Barber or a short-peak back like Terrell Davis deserve inclusion, for the most part the top-15 backs are a tier above the rest. Looking at the all-time rushing list, only three backs ranked 15th-30th are in the Hall of Fame. That includes O.J. Simpson who despite a short peak, averaged 4.7 yards a carry and won four rushing titles. That's enough to vault him from 18th all-time in rushing yards into the list of the 15 best backs ever.
Peterson still has work to do to make this list, but it's clear that barring catastrophic injury in the next 12 months, he'll be there soon enough. His overall body of work is strong enough that there is no one between him and this list of backs who would merit consideration above Peterson.
Though he still lacks the volume totals in yards, his touchdowns, yards per carry and two rushing titles argue strongly for his inclusion among the best backs ever. A third title this year, together with an MVP award and a 2,000 yard season will all but rubber-stamp his ticket to Canton and his status as one of the greatest ever.
Where Will He Finish?
Given Peterson's eventual inclusion in the top category of runners, it's fair to ask the question where he will finish at the end of his career. Of course, projecting final career totals isn't as easy as pro-rating a few years of current production. It's difficult for runners to maintain their pace after age 29.
The 15 best backs ever produced 105 seasons of 1,000 yards rushing or more by age 29. As a group, the same list put up just 13 such seasons total. In other words, even the best runners in history were nearly finished as productive starters by age 30.
Peterson is 28 this year and shows no signs of slowing down. That shouldn't be a comfort to Vikings fans, however. Many of the elite backs fell off a cliff after age 29. Eric Dickerson, the player who Peterson is most often compared to stylistically, is a cautionary tale. At age 28, he won his fourth rushing crown and at age 29 put up 1,311 yards and made his fifth Pro Bowl appearance. He would play in just 32 more NFL games, rushing for only another 2,033 yards.
More recent examples like Edgerrin James and LaDanian Tomlinson tell a similar story. Both men were finished as primary ball carriers at age 30. Only 22 men in NFL history have ever rushed for 1,000 total yards after they hit 30. Only 14 have ever hit 2,000 and only seven have rushed for 3,000 or more yards.
Time is waning on Peterson's career even as he streaks toward another All-Pro season. Even if Peterson maintains his 100-yards-a-game pace the rest of this season and puts up a respectable 1,300 yard season in 2014, it's perfectly fair to assume that those 1,700 yards will represent the bulk of his remaining career rushing production.
How high he climbs on the all-time list will depend on his production during those inevitable declining years.
Assuming he hits 11,700 yards by the time he turns 30, here's where he'll finish all-time at each yardage milestone:
|Yards After 30
|Final All-Time Rank
Peterson is likely to finish in the bottom-half of the top 10 runners all time, and will probably be remembered alongside Dickerson and Tony Dorsett as one of the best, but just outside the top five or six.
Unless he has a historic closing kick, it will be a stretch to consider him alongside Jim Brown, Barry Sanders, LaDanian Tomlinson, Walter Payton, Emmitt Smith or even Marshall Faulk (perhaps the best receiving back in history).
Of course to be called the greatest of all time a player has to do things that no one else ever did. In that spirit, anything is possible for Peterson. More likely than not, however, we'll remember him as one of the best, but not the best that ever was.