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NFL Morning After: Adrian Peterson’s best season yet

Minnesota Vikings running back Peterson leaps over Detroit Lions safety Coleman during the second half of their NFL football game in Minneapolis Reuters

If I had told you on New Year’s Day that 2012 would be the best year of Adrian Peterson’s career, you would have said I was nuts. Well, I may be nuts, but Adrian Peterson is also the best running back in the NFL, and playing better this season than he ever has before.

Peterson, the Vikings running back who suffered a torn ACL in Week 16 of last season and spent his New Year’s recovering from reconstructive knee surgery, looked at the start of this year like he might not even be able to play football at all in 2012. Instead, Peterson put himself through a grueling offseason rehabilitation program in which the only doubt the Vikings’ medical staff expressed was whether they could keep the hard-working Peterson from overdoing it. He was ready to go for the first game of the season.

And what a season it’s been. In Sunday’s win over the Lions, Peterson carried 27 times for 171 yards and a touchdown, becoming the first player in the NFL this season to top 1,000 yards. Peterson leads the league in rushing with 1,128 yards, and he’s on pace to gain 1,805 yards this season. That would be a career high, as would his current average of 5.8 yards per carry, and he’s also on pace for a career-high 46 catches this year. Statistically, Peterson is having his best season.

But it goes beyond the statistics. It’s that Peterson, who last made the playoffs as a young player on a 2009 team led by Brett Favre, is now the veteran leader of this 6-4 Vikings team, which has legitimate playoff aspirations. It’s that Peterson is doing everything against defenses that are built to stop him: On Sunday, with the Vikings’ top receiver, Percy Harvin, sidelined, the Lions were stacking eight and even nine players in the box to stop Peterson. But they simply couldn’t: He broke tackles, outran people, and even hurdled a defender on a spectacular demonstration that his knee is 100 percent healthy. (Although the run on which he hurdled a defender didn’t count toward his stats, as it was called back by a holding penalty.)

Now the question is whether the Vikings, who are one of the NFL’s pleasant surprises through 10 games, can do it for six more games. Frankly, the smart money says they can’t. The Vikings still have to play the Bears twice, the Packers twice and the Texans once. They’ll probably only be favored in one of their final six games, Week 15 at St. Louis. So at the end of the season, it wouldn’t be at all surprising if Peterson’s heroics weren’t enough to lead the Vikings to a winning record.

But if the Vikings go through that gauntlet and end up in the playoffs, and if Peterson keeps up his current pace, it would represent by far the best season of his career. And it would make Peterson more than just the best running back in football. It would make him a strong candidate for the NFL’s MVP.

Peterson was the player who impressed me the most on Sunday. Here are my other Sunday thoughts:

Chip Kelly and Michael Vick would make a dynamic duo in 2013. Kelly, the Oregon head coach whose team is unbeaten this season, is widely regarded as a strong NFL head-coaching candidate. And Vick, the Eagles quarterback who suffered a concussion in Sunday’s loss against the Cowboys, is widely regarded as needing a fresh start after things have fallen apart for him in Philadelphia. So what could be better than Kelly (whose spread offense is predicated on having a quarterback who can beat defenses with his legs or his arm) coaching Vick (who is the NFL’s all-time leader for rushing yards by a quarterback)? Let me be the first to admit that it’s entirely possible that Kelly’s system wouldn’t work in the NFL, and it’s also entirely possible that Vick is simply done as a quality NFL starter. Yes, there’s a chance it would be an utter disaster. But there’s also a chance that Kelly and Vick would be an incredible pairing. I’d love to see it happen next season.

Titans running back Chris Johnson is the most inconsistent player in NFL history. After his 23-carry, 126-yard game against the Dolphins on Sunday, Johnson now has four games this season in which he gained more than 120 yards and at least 5.5 yards a carry. He also has four games this season in which he gained less than 25 yards and averaged less than 2.2 yards a carry. It seems impossible that a player who’s capable of the kind of greatness we routinely see from Johnson is also capable of turning in the kinds of dreadful performances that have become routine for Johnson. But that’s what Chris Johnson is: On any given Sunday he might be the best running back in the league, or the worst.

Did they bring back the replacement refs? (Part One) Broncos punt returner Trindon Holliday raced 76 yards for a touchdown in Carolina, but there was just one problem: He decided to start celebrating his touchdown after 75 yards. Holliday flipped the ball into the air before crossing the goal line, which means it should have been ruled a fumble into the end zone and the Panthers’ ball. But the officials on the field for some reason ruled it a touchdown, and even more egregiously, the replay assistant failed to signal to the referee to review it — even though the rules say that every touchdown needs to be confirmed on replay before the extra point is kicked. It was a stupid mistake by Holliday, a major oversight by the officials on the field, and it ought to be a firing offense for the replay assistant who failed to fix it.

Did they bring back the replacement refs? (Part Two) In one of the worst pieces of officiating you’ll ever see, the Vikings were briefly awarded an interception return for a touchdown on an incomplete pass — an incomplete pass that was so incredibly obvious that it’s stunning that none of the seven officials on the field saw that the ball bounced off the ground. Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford’s incomplete pass bounced into the hands of Vikings cornerback Antoine Winfield, who grabbed it and just stood there for a couple of seconds before he realized that none of the officials had seen it hit the ground, at which point he sprinted into the end zone for what was ruled on the field as a touchdown. The call was correctly overturned on replay, but it’s ridiculous that the officials needed replay to get that one right.

Did they bring back the replacement refs? (Part Three) Sunday’s most replacement-like officiating happened in the bizarre tie game in San Francisco, where the men in stripes simply looked like they had no clue. Long delays, conferences in which all of the officials appeared to be confused, and bad calls abounded. The worst of all was a strange sequence in which the officials allowed the clock to keep running while they brought out the chains for a measurement, resulting in more than a minute being wrongly run off the clock. Mistakes like that are inexcusable.

Indianapolis is going to the playoffs. The Colts’ win on Thursday, combined with losses by the Chargers and Dolphins on Sunday, give Indianapolis a two-game lead over the rest of the pack in the AFC wild card race. Considering that the Colts still have games against the 3-6 Bills, the 4-5 Lions, the 4-6 Titans and the 1-7 Chiefs, it’s almost impossible to envision Indianapolis falling short of a winning record, and this looks like a season in which anything over .500 is going to be good enough to secure an AFC playoff spot. Amazing as it is to say, the team that finished last year with the worst record in the league will finish this year in the playoffs. That’s almost as amazing as a running back who entered the year with a devastating knee injury finishing the year as an MVP candidate.

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Brandon Marshall trade means Jets will jettison Percy Harvin

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The news that the Jets have traded for wide receiver Brandon Marshall surely means that Percy Harvin is on the way out.

Harvin, who arrived in New York via a trade with the Seahawks last year, carries a 2015 cap hit of $10.5 million. There’s no way the Jets, who already have Eric Decker at a cap hit of $6.5 million and have now added Marshall at a cap hit of $7.7 million, are going to keep Harvin at that price.

The Jets will likely explore trading Harvin, although it’s hard to see why any team would give anything up to get him when they know he’ll be released soon enough. And the Jets can’t wait too long to send Harvin packing because of the way their trade with the Seahawks was structured: If Harvin is still on the Jets’ roster on March 19, the Jets owe the Seahawks a fourth-round draft pick. If Harvin is not on the roster on March 19, the Jets only owe the Seahawks a sixth-round draft pick.

So expect to see Harvin, who started his career in Minnesota before going to Seattle and then New York, with a fourth team next season.

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Washington keeps Niles Paul with a three-year deal

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With a flurry of deals starting to happen today, Washington’s getting in on the act.

PFT has confirmed that tight end Niles Paul is staying in the nation’s capital.  It’s a three-year deal with a maximum value of just under $10 million.

Paul didn’t do much of anything his first three seasons, but emerged with 39 catches for 507 yards and a touchdown last year, and could have a bigger role moving forward.

The former wide receiver is a good option anyway, as Jordan Reed hasn’t proven himself the most durable of tight ends.

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Lions sign PK Matt Prater to three-year deal

Prater Getty Images

Matt Prater and the Lions were a perfect match last season.

And now, Prater has reached a multi-year agreement with the club.

Prater has signed a three-year deal with the Lions, the club said Friday. Mike Klis of the Denver Post first reported Prater’s agreement.

According to Ian Rapoport of NFL Media, Prater’s contract is for $9 million.

The 30-year-old Prater connected on 21-of-26 field goal attempts in 11 regular-season games with Detroit. He also hit both field goals in the Lions’ postseason loss to Dallas.

Prater joined the Lions after Nate Freese and Alex Henery combined to hit just 4-of-12 field goals in the club’s first five games. Prater did what he was called upon to do, giving the Lions some badly needed stability at the position.

Not surprisingly, the Lions have decided to keep him around.

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Surprise: Bears keeping quarterback Jimmy Clausen

John Fox Jimmy Clausen

When John Fox was trying to grumble his way out of the Panthers prior to the 2010 season, they drafted him a quarterback he didn’t really want.

So naturally, now that the poor kid’s not a helpless rookie any more, Fox likes him.

According to Adam Schefter of ESPN, the Bears are re-signing free agent quarterback Jimmy Clausen.

Clausen was 1-9 as a starter for Fox on that magnificent 2-14 Panthers team, and hadn’t played again until the Bears signed him last year as a clipboard holder, who eventually appeared in four games.

Fox didn’t necessarily having anything against Clausen in 2010, he just didn’t want to be held hostage to the last year of his contract, and prefers older to younger in almost every decision.

Maybe now the Bears can also add free agents Matt Moore and Brian St. Pierre, and Fox can collect the whole set of question marks from the final season of his first job.

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Broncos tender three exclusive-rights free agents

Brandon Marshall AP

The Broncos have extended contract offers to three exclusive-rights free agents: linebacker Brandon Marshall, offensive tackle Paul Cornick and offensive guard Ben Garland. The club announced the tenders on Friday.

Marshall, 25, had a breakout season in 2014, notching 113 tackles in 14 games (13 starts). He projects to inside linebacker in Denver’s 3-4 scheme under new defensive coordinator Wade Phillips.

Cornick, 25, made six starts in 2014 — three at right tackle and three as an extra tight end. Overall, he played in 12 games.

Garland, 26, appeared in eight games as a reserve.

Teams have until Tuesday to tender contract offers to exclusive-rights free agents, players who have less than three years of service time.

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Dolphins “confident” they’ll land Suh

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With the 2015 free agency period looming, the biggest defensive fish since Reggie White could soon be playing for the team named after an aquatic mammal.

Armando Salguero of the Miami Herald reports that the Dolphins are “confident” they’ll land Suh.  Per Salguero, the Dolphins don’t believe it’s a certainty because they believe that they’ll have competition from teams like the Raiders, Jaguars, Colts, and perhaps the Titans.  As we hear it, however, the only real competition will be the Lions, and the Lions won’t provide much competition.

Per Salguero, Suh’s target falls in the range of $102 million over six years.  Whether he gets that depends on how many other teams truly pursue Suh.  Some may kick the tires aggressively once the three-day window opens, but for now the team most likely to pony up the most cash for Suh resides in Miami.

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Bears trade Brandon Marshall to the Jets

Minnesota Vikings v Chicago Bears Getty Images

The Bears made good on their promise to “explore trade options” for Brandon Marshall, by trading him.

According to Adam Schefter of ESPN, they’ve dealt the mercurial wideout to the Jets.

The Colts and Browns had also shown interest, but the Jets make sense on a number of levels.

First, they need players. And his going to New York to tape a weekly television appearance won’t be as much of an issue when he’s already there.

The Bears were intent on getting out from under the $7.5 million guaranteed if he’d have been on the roster March 12, but at that salary and $7.9 million and $8.3 million for the following two years, he’s reasonable compared to what the top wideouts will get in free agency.

For the Jets, it gives them an established playmaker to put alongside Eric Decker, giving Geno Smith (or whoever’s playing quarterback) a better chance to succeed.

His numbers were down last year with injuries and an ineffective Jay Cutler, but he had 218 catches for 2,803 yards and 23 touchdowns the two previous years.

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PFT Live: King Dunlap, Dolphins talk with Armando Salguero

Washington Wizards v Toronto Raptors

Free agency is almost upon us and teams can begin talking to players from other teams on Saturday and it sounds like the Dolphins will be making some calls to defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh.

Armando Salguero of the Miami Herald will join Mike Florio on Friday’s PFT Live to discuss the Dolphins’ expected pursuit of the top free agent in this year’s class. Salguero reported Friday that the Dolphins are confident they will land the disruptive lineman and he’ll tell us why during his visit.

Chargers tackle King Dunlap will also be on the show and he’ll explain why he chose to re-sign with San Diego rather than explore what the rest of the league might have paid him as a free agent. Former NFL safety Robert Griffith will also drop by to talk about his candidacy for executive director of the NFLPA.

We also want to hear from PFT Planet. Email questions at any time via the O’Reilly Auto Parts Ask the Pros inbox or get in touch on Twitter at @ProFootballTalk to let us know what’s on your mind.

It all gets started at noon ET and you can listen to all three hours live via the various NBC Sports Radio affiliates, through the links at PFT, or with the NBC Sports Radio app. You can also watch a simulcast of the first hour of the show by clicking right here.

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Reggie Wayne won’t be back with Colts

Reggie Wayne AP

No one has ever played more games for the Colts than wide receiver Reggie Wayne, but he won’t be adding to his lead in that category.

The Colts announced Friday that they will not re-sign Wayne, who is set to become a free agent on Tuesday. Outside of his outsize role in the history of the franchise, there isn’t much reason for surprise at the announcement.

Wayne looked like a much lesser version of his former self on his way to 64 catches for 779 yards and two touchdowns in 2014 and became an afterthought on offense as the season wound down. Wayne ends his run with the Colts with 1,070 catches (7th in NFL history) for 14,345 yards (8th in NFL history) and 82 touchdowns and the team celebrated his career in an announcement about their decision.

“Reggie is one of the greatest men to ever wear the horseshoe, and we have been blessed to watch him play for the past 14 years,” owner Jim Irsay said. “When he first took the field with us in 2001, we knew this day would eventually arrive.  That reality is one of the things that makes pro football such a tough business.  We feel this decision is in the best interests of the team and for Reggie as it will allow him to seek a better opportunity for playing time elsewhere if he so chooses. Reggie is beloved by the Colts organization and our fans and he will always be a part of the Colts family.  I look forward to the day in the near future when our great number 87 enters the Colts Ring of Honor and the Pro Football Hall of Fame.”

Wayne recently had surgery to repair a torn triceps and is reportedly unsure about continuing to play in 2015. If he doesn’t want to suit up for a team other than the Colts for the first time since college, we’ll have seen the last of Wayne after a brilliant NFL career.

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Report: Marques Colston restructures, will remain with Saints

Marques Colston, Leonard Johnson AP

The Saints released running back Pierre Thomas this week and there have been reports that they’re shopping linebacker Curtis Lofton in a trade, but they can also clear the money they need off their cap by getting players to rework their current deals.

Mike Garafolo of FOX Sports reports that wide receiver Marques Colston has done just that. Colston has reportedly restructured his contract and will remain with the Saints for the 2015 season.

There are no details about the changes to the deal, which called for Colston to make $6.9 million and count $9.7 million against the cap in the 2015 season. Coming off a year that saw him catch 59 passes for 902 yards and with some foot problems in the not-too-distant past, a straight pay cut seems like a reasonable guess.

With Colston sticking around, the Saints will have him, Brandin Cooks and Kenny Stills back at wideout to go with tight end Jimmy Graham. That should leave other areas as bigger priorities once they’re under the cap and ready to add bodies to their 2015 roster.

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Three-day legal tampering period starts tomorrow

Shady Getty Images

In recognition of the rampant illegal tampering that occurs in the weeks preceding free agency, the NFL has created a three-day window for legal tampering, prior to the start of free agency.  This year, that window opens on Saturday, March 7.

Given the rampant reports of agreements in principle that emerged during a similar time span following the lockout but before deals could be signed, it was believed when the NFL launched the legal tampering process that a similar dynamic would occur.  That hasn’t happened, in large part because the NFL annually has reminded teams to refrain from announcing agreements in principle.  The NFL has even instructed teams to refrain from making actual offers during the three-day period.

Last year, the NFL tried to harmonize the concept of negotiating with the ban on actually making offers during negotiation, since the making of offers is necessarily part of the negotiating.

The version of the memo sent last year permits a team to “[s]ubmit a written summary of the club’s negotiating position,” to “[e]xpress its position as to signing bonus, length of contract, amounts of signing bonus and yearly compensation, and other items,” to “[a]djust its negotiating position in response to a certified agent’s position,” and “[e]ngage in an oral exchange of positions.”

However, the team must say that it is simply articulating a “negotiating position,” not “making an offer.”  Under the 2014 memo, no offers can be made, and no express or implied agreements can be reached.

Despite the unnecessary complexities the NFL has added to the process, the three-day window benefits looming free agents.  As one G.M. told PFT on Friday morning, the legal tampering period has helped plenty of players get paid plenty of money.

Last year, for example, news that the Vikings had re-signed defensive end Everson Griffen to a monster deal during the three-day window shocked many fans.  For the Vikings, the move was justified by the information Griffen’s agents was able to obtain during the three-day window.

This year, there’s a good chance that multiple impending free agents will do deals to stay with their current teams based on the “negotiation positions” that emerge during the three-day window.  There’s an even better chance that the “negotiation positions” in many cases will transform into an unofficial agreement in principle with a new team, to be finalized at 4:01 p.m. ET on Tuesday.

The best chance is that teams and agents will continue to keep the cards close to the vest in deference to the league’s very strong desire that the news of new players in new cities stays under wraps until the market officially opens.  Some league insiders insist it’s part of the NFL’s vision for an eventual college-style “signing day.”

While it’s inevitable that certain nuggets and/or tidbits will emerge in the coming days, the trend suggests that the only hard news will come if/when players re-up with their current teams.

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Byron Maxwell: Eagles scheme “definitely fits me”

NFC Championship - Green Bay Packers v Seattle Seahawks Getty Images

Cornerback Byron Maxwell is expected to be a popular man when teams are allowed to start talking to impending free agents this weekend and plenty of speculation about which team will be hottest on his trail has centered on the Eagles.

Philadelphia is in serious need of help at corner and their recent moves to clear out a lot of cap space hasn’t done anything to stop people from connecting the dots with Maxwell. Maxwell’s comments during an appearance on CSN Philly won’t slow things down either.

“Their stye of defense is very similar to what we play in Seattle,” Maxwell said. “Lot of man-press, cover 3. They allow their corners to play and get physical. Their scheme definitely fits me.”

Maxwell said he’s only heard good things about Philadelphia from the fans to the cheesesteaks. If he hears more good things from the Eagles over the weekend, he might be heading there for a heavy dose of both.

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Jermaine Kearse gets second-round tender from Seahawks

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Wide receiver Jermaine Kearse caught the pass that put the Seahawks in the Super Bowl and the team will either have him or a second-round pick to help them in an effort to make it back to the big game.

Field Yates of ESPN.com reports that Kearse has received a second-round tender from the Seahawks before becoming a restricted free agent. That sets him up to make $2.356 million next season unless another team makes him an offer that Seattle isn’t willing to match while also sending a second-round pick to the defending NFC champs.

Kearse’s overtime heroics in the NFC Championship game don’t make that a particularly likely development. The draft is thought to be a good one for wide receivers, which makes the draft pick compensation a lot to give up on top of a contract for a player with 63 catches in the last three seasons.

Even if Kearse is back, receiver is expected to be a spot where the Seahawks look to add help this offseason. There were too many moments last season when the team struggled to get receivers open and Paul Richardson is looking at an extended absence after tearing his ACL in January.

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Bengals use higher tender to hang onto Emmanuel Lamur

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A year ago, a desire to save less than a million bucks cost the Bengals a player they had developed.

They learned that lesson the hard way, but at least they learned.

According to Field Yates of ESPN, the Bengals have used the second-round level of restricted free agent tender on linebacker Emmanuel Lamur.

That’s worth $2.356 million, and virtually guarantees he’ll stay with them another year, as no one’s likely to give up a two for him.

If they’d have used the low tender of $1.542 million, he could have been poached without compensation, as he entered the league as an undrafted rookie.

That’s what happened to them last year, when they used the low tender on wide receiver Andrew Hawkins, whom the Browns were able to sign without giving up anything (other than a four-year, $13.6 million contract).

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Saints not expected to tender Tyrunn Walker as restricted free agent

Tampa Bay Buccaneers v New Orleans Saints Getty Images

Defensive tackle Tyrunn Walker didn’t see a ton of playing time for the Saints last season, but he did well with what he got by recording 19 tackles and 2.5 sacks in 306 snaps up front for New Orleans.

It looks like he’ll have a chance to parley that into a deal with a new team. Mike Triplett of ESPN.com reports that the Saints aren’t planning to make a tender offer to the impending restricted free agent, although they would be open to a return at a price below the $1.54 million minimum tender.

That’s not particularly surprising, given the Saints’ cap situation calls for them to cut money rather than add it at the moment, but it also wouldn’t be terribly surprising if they don’t get that chance with a 25-year-old who could fit into a rotation for either a 3-4 or 4-3 team and showed improvement in his third season with the Saints.

Running back Travaris Cadet and offensive tackle Bryce Harris are the other two impending restricted free agents in New Orleans and Triplett suggests they’ll wind up in the same boat as Walker.

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