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Spielman Discusses Peterson Decision, Running Back Depth

INDIANAPOLIS —A day after the Vikings announced they will not exercise the 2017 option on Adrian Peterson, a move that makes him an unrestricted free agent, the running back was a hot topic surrounding the franchise at the first day of the 2017 NFL Scouting Combine.

Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman said that while letting the Vikings all-time leading rusher hit the open market was a tough call, the move doesn't mean Peterson's tenure in Minnesota is finished.

"I spoke with his agent, and I spoke with Adrian," Spielman said in a session with beat writers. "(We had) very good conversations, but I'll keep those conversations between myself and Adrian and his representation. (They were) very positive.

"Like all our players, we'll keep all our options open," Spielman added. "I don't know how all this evolves, but from the standpoint of keeping our options open on all our players, we'll stick to what we've always done."

Peterson, who has 11,747 career rushing yards and 97 career rushing touchdowns, missed the majority of the 2016 season due to a torn meniscus in his knee. He rushed for 72 yards on 37 carries.

Spielman called Peterson a Hall of Fame running back but said the Vikings will have to take a wait-and-see approach going forward.

The Vikings have Jerick McKinnon under contract, while fellow running back Matt Asiata is a pending free agent.

McKinnon rushed for 539 yards and two scores in 2016 while Asiata added 402 yards and six touchdowns.

Spielman said the Vikings have confidence that McKinnon, who played quarterback in an option, running back, receiver and cornerback in college, can continue to progress at the position.

"I think Jerick was solid," Spielman said. "I think he can do some things better, but we're very excited.

"You have to remember, Jerick has only played that position for three years. I think he's going to grow and develop," Spielman added. "There's no question that when he gets the ball in his hands in specific situations that he can be an explosive playmaker."

If the Vikings are looking to add to the running back group, Spielman said the team could explore options through both free agency and the draft. Free agency begins March 9, and the 2017 NFL Draft is in late April.

"There are different things that go into that — what we do in free agency, what the market is for running backs, to the draft — you have to weigh-in all of those potential options that are out there," Spielman said.

While the Vikings don't currently have a first-round selection, Minnesota has a second-round pick plus pairs of picks in both the third and fourth rounds.

Spielman said the array of picks could prompt the Vikings to draw from this year's strong group of running backs. 

"I don't remember this amount of (talented) running backs coming out," Spielman said. "We just got out of our draft meetings, and there's a significant amount of talent at that position.

"And to be honest with you, I can't remember a year where the draft class at running back is this deep," he added.

Spielman said that there is sometimes a learning curve running backs endure when they first enter the league. But it isn't with production carrying the ball, instead the focus is on pass protection and blitz pickup. 

"As you look at rookie running backs who do come in, they seem to have a pretty good success rate early compared to some other positions," Spielman said. "The reason why is that I know with the ball in their hands they can rely on athletic ability and their ability to make plays. That comes natural to them.

"I think where there is development is in pass protection. Understanding not only the protection and the schemes being called, but the technique involved," he added. "I know when you look at running backs coming out in the draft over the years, a lot of them are in spread offenses, and they aren't asked to do a lot of blocking. There are the technical aspects of the game that have to be coached and refined."

The running back position will be one to keep an eye on over the next few weeks as the Vikings prepare for free agency and the draft.

It remains to be seen if Peterson will be part of the equation.

"Adrian will always be a member of the Minnesota Vikings," Spielman said. "He'll be one of the all-time greats who ever played for our franchise.

"He's done a lot for our organization," Spielman added. "But we knew this decision was going to come, and they knew it was going to come as well."

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