NFC North: James Laurinaitis
Peterson acknowledged Thursday that Felton has "helped put me in position" to break Eric Dickerson's record for rushing yards in a season. As we discussed last month and can now update in this post, the numbers are absolutely overwhelming in favor of the Vikings' two-back set after years of primarily using Peterson as a single back.
When Felton leads the way, Peterson is averaging 7.7 yards per carry and has ripped off 18 runs of at least 20 yards. Out of the one-back set, meanwhile, Peterson's average is 3.6 yards per carry and he has two plays of at least 20 yards. The chart, courtesy ESPN Stats & Information, provides further details.
The dichotomy represents a career renaissance for Felton, the former Detroit Lions fullback who had some decent moments as a ball carrier and receiver but wasn't used much as a blocker in Scott Linehan's offense. Even then, Felton dreamed of blocking for Peterson in a two-back offense. He knew of Peterson's aversion to that scheme but said: "I thought if I could team up with him, I would make him like it."
You don't have to look any further than Peterson's 82-yard run last Sunday against the St. Louis Rams to see Felton's impact. Felton got through the hole quickly -- a requirement to keep ahead of the hard-charging Peterson -- and shielded Rams linebacker James Laurinaitis for several seconds while Peterson bounced around and finally darted downfield off Felton's left hip.
"He wants to go," Felton said. "So as a fullback, you have to be able to adjust and get out of his way. You have to see the hole and try to explode through the hole like he does."
Like a quarterback with a new receiver, Peterson has passed along some personal preferences to Felton. Among them: Take a short step on draw plays instead of the traditional long one, all in an effort to accommodate how quickly Peterson hits the hole.
That works for Felton, who is quicker than most fullbacks and not necessarily one who tries to pancake every opponent.
"My style fits him," Felton said. "I'm not a big 'try to muscle guys out and plod through the hole.' I try to get movement, get out of his way and open the hole. I think that's what we've developed. He's realized that and appreciates the success we've had."
Related: David Flemming of ESPN The Magazine took a look at how Dickerson originally set the record. Here is a long Grantland.com profile of Peterson from Steve Marsh. Finally, we posted 13 mostly stunning statistical facts about Peterson's season earlier this week.
As promised, here is Part II of the weekend mailbag. Thanks for waiting.
David of Gainesville, Fla., writes: I'm a Florida Gators native and diehard Viking fan. Many people have speculated Percy Harvin will slip with the drug rumors but I have seen this guy in person at every Florida home game for years. Incredible athlete, tough, and fast with pads on. Reminds me of 1998 when the Vikings picked 21 and had this guy Randy Moss fall to them because of his "issues." What are your thoughts?
Kevin Seifert: My first thought is that it's dangerous to put anyone in the Randy Moss category. Moss was one of a kind, and if I recall he was generally considered one of the best players available in the 1998 draft. I don't know that Harvin falls in that category even if you totally discount his character and drug rumors. Scouts Inc. ranks him as the 16th-best prospect and I think that's about right.
That said, I'm really intrigued by some Harvin-related comments that Minnesota vice president Rick Spielman recently offered and wonder if the Vikings aren't ready to pounce if he falls to No. 22. Spielman noted the Vikings have taken 78 players off their draft board for various red flags, but it didn't sound like Harvin was one of them. In fact, Spielman spoke pretty extensively about Harvin, saying he had "unique skills." Spielman acknowledged the rumors floating about Harvin testing positive for drugs at the scouting combine but added that the team was still "going through" Harvin's past.
Here's the full quote from Spielman, as reported by the Star Tribune:
"Good football player, had some durability issues down there at Florida. There are some rumors going around now about [him] potentially being dirty at the combine, so we're going through all that. But he's a very explosive receiver. Everybody is projecting him as a potential punt and kickoff returner. He can probably do that but he hasn't done it yet in college. Very versatile. They used him at running back, they used him at slot receiver. He has some unique skills."
I don't think receiver is as big of a need for the Vikings as others do, but in some ways this reminds me of when Spielman grabbed Adrian Peterson in the 2007 draft. That year, Spielman spoke publicly before the draft about Peterson's mending collarbone, an approach that in retrospect seemed designed to suggest the collarbone was a potential problem and enhance the chances Peterson would fall to the Vikings at No. 7 overall. The Vikings then snuck Peterson into their facility for a last-minute check on the injury before drafting him.
So what does this all mean for Harvin? I don't know yet. But part of me thinks the Vikings are hoping to grab a playmaker at a value spot after performing their due diligence on a potential danger spot.
Tom of East Lansing, Mich, writes: Quick Lions question. Is it crazy to consider the possibility that Jim Schwartz is considering a 3-4 opportunity? With Ernie Sims and Julian Peterson already there, possibly Jordon Dizon with some added weight, and potentially a high draft pick with either Aaron Curry or James Laurinaitis, it seems that the new staff is not shy to run at LBs. Couple this with some serious weight addition mandates for the D-Line, and it seems to me that Schwartz is trying to get deep at LB and bulk up the line to fill the gaps.
I specifically look at Ikaika Alama-Francis, who has said the plan is to gain as much weight as is comfortable/possible, but who the team has told will be worked solely at DE. He got to as high as 300 in college (as a 3-4 DE) and there isn't much reason to think he won't be able to again. My point? A 300 pound DE sounds like a 3-4 plan to me. I realize its crazy to think that one of the most "playmaker" deprived defenses in NFL history can go from a 4-3 to a 3-4 in one year, but is it at all possible? If they aren't there yet, what do they still need to do?
Schwartz is a smart guy, he knows he has a minimum of two years before a season record will be looked at seriously in terms of his being fired. Any chance he sees the future as a 3-4, and he figures that he might as well make the switch when the defense is already going to have a tough year, therefore reducing the risk of having two consecutive bad defensive years.? (This year because the team is rebuilding, and next year due to the switch to 3-4.) Thoughts?
Kevin Seifert: A very reasoned argument, Tom. I like it. Schwartz has said on multiple occasions that he plans to run the 4-3, but that he would never rule out the 3-4 if he determines his personnel is a better match for it. And I especially like your instinct to question what you hear. Can't tell you how many times coaches/owners/general managers have "changed their mind" on issues they previously seemed convinced about.
In this case, however, I really don't think Schwartz necessarily is looking to change schemes. He always ran a 4-3 in Tennessee and, all things equal, probably doesn't want to change now. His background with New England coach Bill Belichick suggests a capacity for schematic adjustments, but I don't think you're seeing the beginning of that process.
Rather, I think Schwartz is just looking for more competent players at the positions you mention. Acquiring Peterson to match up with Sims gives the Lions two NFL-caliber linebackers. I don't sense they have a ton of hope right now for Dizon, who was drafted to play in a specific scheme (Tampa-2) that the Lions don't run anymore. If they draft Curry, they'll have three NFL-caliber linebackers. I don't consider that stockpiling as much as just trying to find some credible starters.
The same goes for the defensive line. A 300-pound defensive end is not unheard of in the 4-3, although I grant you it's unusual. But the bulking-up edict, more than anything, is Schwartz trying to compensate for the unusually light defensive line the Lions used in recent years. Getting bigger will bring them closer to the NFL norm for a 4-3, in my opinion, and not to the beginnings of a shift to the 3-4.
Drew of Gwangju, Korea, writes: One thing I am annoyed nobody is talking about it the prospect of Green Bay taking a halfback. Ryan Grant is average at best. Of course he has shown flashes of greatness, but he is amazingly inconsistent. He also seems to have a real problem with producing anything during the first eight games of a season. Drafting another quality back to split time could be a great thing for Grant, and the Packers defense which would get to rest more while the backs run down time.
Kevin Seifert: It's an interesting topic, Drew, but one I doubt the Packers would ad
dress at No. 9 overall. This year, there might not be a running back taken among the top 10 picks of the draft. Scouts Inc. ranks Knowshon Moreno as the top running back in the draft but the 13th-best overall prospect.
That said, Grant's 2008 production hasn't sparked much offseason debate. But I imagine the Packers would like more explosion from him -- or from someone else in their running game -- in 2009.
The Packers had only four carries of 25 or more yards last season. Grant had only two of them among his 312 carries. One was a 57-yard run in the season-opening game against Minnesota, the other was for 35 yards Nov. 16 against Chicago.
It sounds odd to offer much criticsm of Grant after he produced a 1,230-yard season. But explosiveness was his primary attribute when he broke out in 2008. With a passing game as productive as the Packers', there should be more opportunities for tailbacks to break long runs.
NFL teams will be playing a little catch-up, or perhaps some Columbo-like detective work, next week when the annual scouting combine commences in Indianapolis.
Minnesota vice president of player personnel Rick Spielman, for one, wants to know why a number of the nation's top seniors skipped last month's Senior Bowl festivities. (For background on this issue, check out ESPN.com analyst Todd McShay's report. McShay notes that his five highest-ranked seniors were absent and named three in particular who might have hurt their status as a result: Baylor offensive lineman Jason Smith, Texas defensive end/linebacker Brian Orakpo and Ohio State linebacker James Laurinaitis.)
Here's what Spielman had to say about the issue:
"Something that was a little different this year was that a lot of the top senior players did not show up. I don't know if that's a trend or not, but it seemed like a lot of those guys did not show up down at the Senior Bowl. I felt that the guys they brought in to replace them did a nice job down there. It just gave us some nice exposure to some guys that maybe weren't as highly-rated as some of the guys that pulled out.
"But that will be something that will probably be addressed when we do get in front of those guys at the combine: The reasons that they didn't come down to the Senior Bowl. It's interesting. Was it something that they didn't feel they needed to go out and show their skills? Was it a competitive thing? Was it an injury thing? So it just kind of opens up another avenue that you want to try to explore: Why they didn't show up."
Asked what type of answers he would be seeking, Spielman said:
"Some of those guys that didn't show up will be battling for first-round positioning. [The Senior Bowl] gave them another opportunity to show their skill set and they didn't do that. It could be a legitimate reason. You don't know until you specifically ask them."
It's early to call this a trend, but I'm sure NFL teams aren't thrilled with the prospect of top players skipping all-star games on top of participating in only selected drills at the combine. If this practice expands, it would shift the postseason evaluation emphasis from all-star games and the combine to on-campus pro days and individual workouts.
That change would give players more of a comfort zone and allow their allies to mold the evaluation process more to their strengths. Obviously, NFL teams prefer to be in control of these situations to gain a full evaluation on their terms. It's something to keep an eye on.