The Minnesota Vikings reversed course last week and decided Wednesday to bar Adrian Peterson from the team until his legal issues are resolved. The Vikings put him on the exempt/commissioner's permission list — which will keep him under contract while barring him from team activities. It's basically a paid suspension.
According to Ian Rapoport of NFL Network, Peterson will still earn the $11.75 million he is owed this season. In a statement announcing the decision, the Vikings said he would be away from the team "until the legal proceedings are resolved."
Even if you ignore the public-relations problems that would come with keeping Peterson on the team, the Vikings could save a ton of money by releasing him. Peterson is three years into a six-year, $96 million contract extension. However, the Vikings have already paid out the $36 million in guaranteed money that the contract contained, according to Spotrac. That means they can cut Peterson without paying him a dime of the ~$56 million he is owed between now and 2017. The only financial penalty of cutting him would be a small cap hit ($2.7 million this year and $2.4 million in 2015, Spotrac reports).
Because Peterson's contract is non-guaranteed from here on, the Vikings have no real incentive to keep him. Even before the allegations of child abuse, Peterson's contract was a knock against him. He's the 12th-highest-paid player in the NFL this year. In a time when running backs are less important than ever before, Peterson is getting paid like one of the league's most important players.
Grantland's Bill Barnwell had Peterson as only the 42nd-most valuable asset in the NFL this summer because his contract was so massive. Barnwell said that giving 11% of your salary cap money to a running back is nuts, no matter who he is:
Your typically good Adrian Peterson season is 15 games, 300 carries, 1,400 rushing yards, and 12 touchdowns. That comes with a cap hit, in 2014, of $14.4 million. No other back in football is above $10 million, and the median starting running back has a cap hit of somewhere around $3.4 million. That’s $11 million you can’t put toward an offensive line or a secondary or, yes, a quarterback. If you know you’re going to get a 2,000-yard season out of Peterson like you did in 2012, you would happily pay that extra $11 million. But you’re more likely to get the typical Adrian Peterson season, like 2013’s 279-1,266-10 line, which isn’t far off from what somebody like Alfred Morris can do for $500,000. Every team would love to have Peterson. Very few want to commit nearly 11 percent of its salary cap to a running back, even one as good as Peterson.
Peterson's cap hit is $15 million for each of the next three seasons. That's a huge financial commitment even if he's is playing at a high level. It's a crippling financial commitment if he's not even on the field.
ESPN’s Chris Mortensen reports that the Vikings “do not foresee Peterson in their future.” That contradicts earlier reporting from ESPN’s Adam Schefter, who said that the team still intended to keep the running back. If the Vikings do keep Peterson on their roster, they're gambling on his resolving his legal issues, avoiding a lengthy suspension from the NFL, and returning to his superhuman form from 2012.