Comparing Adrian Peterson to the Greatest Running Backs Ever

Mike Nelson@Mike_E_NelsonCorrespondent IDecember 13, 2012

Adrian Peterson is on pace for his most rushing yards in 2012, less than a year removed from a torn ACL and MCL.
Adrian Peterson is on pace for his most rushing yards in 2012, less than a year removed from a torn ACL and MCL.Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

The Minnesota Vikings' Adrian Peterson insisted he would be healthy enough to play in Week 1 of the 2012 NFL season after tearing both his MCL and ACL in his left knee on Dec. 24, 2011.

Not only did he come back, but Peterson is having the best year of his career. He is inching toward one of the best seasons by a running back in the league’s history, and he’s doing it with power, grace, agility and a tenacity that hasn’t been seen in quite some time.

Through 13 games, Peterson has 1,600 yards on 265 attempts (6.0 yards per carry) with 10 touchdowns. He has also caught 38 passes for 211 yards. The six-year pro is on pace for nearly 2,000 rushing yards.

That 2,000-yard possibility led to the eventual internal debate about how the 2012 Adrian Peterson compares to some of the game’s all-time best backs.

For me, in no particular order, the five best running backs are Jim Brown, Barry Sanders, Walter Payton, Earl Campbell and Emmitt Smith.

Jim Brown is one of the more comparable backs to Peterson on this list. At 6’2”, 232 pounds, he ran with a punishing nature that Peterson, 6’1”, 217 pounds, often emulates.

Neither is very active in the offense’s passing attack (262 receptions over a nine-year career for Brown; 175 in just under six years for Peterson), but Peterson’s numbers will be more skewed toward the passing game because of the era in which he’s playing.

Both running backs are known for their power, but get them in the open field and WATCH OUT.

Earl Campbell is also similar to Peterson in some ways.

At 5’11”, 244 pounds, Campbell was an absolute truck. When he went down, he made life terribly difficult for the defender(s). He’s known for his 34-inch thighs that garnered plenty of attention during his eight-year career.

He wasn’t active in the passing game like Peterson, but Peterson is likely faster in the open field (not to say Campbell was not fast as well).

Barry Sanders is the one back on this list who Peterson has little in common with. At 5’8”, 203 pounds, he built his career on elusiveness. He consistently made defenders look silly with one of his infamous cutbacks.

The former Detroit Lion was much more active in the passing game and was very comfortable taking a screen pass to the house.

Walter Payton, aka “Sweetness,” was elusive like Sanders but wasn’t afraid to bowl over a defender. At 5’10”, 200 pounds, he had the body by which to do it. He was the NFL’s all-time leading rusher until Emmitt Smith unseated him.

Peterson can emulate the open-field speed of Payton, but he doesn’t compare in elusiveness or agility.

And finally there’s Smith. Smith is the NFL’s all-time leading rusher with 18,355 yards. Over a 15-year career, he did a lot right.

Smith was a very well-rounded back who enjoyed a long career. He wasn’t overly powerful or quick, but he didn't have any weaknesses either. He could plow through a defender or sprint by one just as easily.

Peterson is like Smith in that he’s a well-rounded runner. He has the ability to do many things well. Smith was better in the aerial attack, however (515 receptions for 3,224 yards).

Longevity is tough to attain for a running back. If Peterson can stay healthy and productive up until his 10th season, we’ll be talking about him as a top-five all-time back.