MANKATO, Minn. — Toby Gerhart is as good as new.
In the modern NFL, that's as important of an attribute as any, especially in the case of a guy like Gerhart whose participation in games for the Minnesota Vikings has been sporadic at best. Being Adrian Peterson's backup is far from the glamour roles around this league, but the former Stanford star and second-round draft pick has done his best to maintain perspective and optimism despite an inevitable dissatisfaction with his status.
"It's a double-edged sword. It's definitely frustrating because you want to be the guy and be featured, but at the same time these last four years I feel like I've grown as a player," Gerhart said. "I've stayed relatively healthy. I haven't gotten the pounding that other guys would've got their first four years, so hopefully that prolongs my career, longevity-wise, and I get an opportunity to show what I can do here in the future."
Gerhart is in the final year of his rookie contract, so he's eligible for unrestricted free agency next spring and, perhaps, the chance to finally be a starter if he chooses to sign with another team.
But assuming Peterson again handles the bulk of the ball carrying again this season, there is little evidence with which to evaluate Gerhart and establish a market for his services. He started one game in 2010 and four more in 2011 when Peterson was hurt, and he had his best game that season after Peterson tore up his left knee by rushing 11 times for 109 yards at Washington.
That's it, though. Over three years, Gerhart has 240 carries and three touchdowns on the ground, plus another 64 receptions and three scores through the air. In 2012, with Peterson on his way to the NFL MVP award, he ran the ball only 50 times for 169 yards.
Gerhart's agent has encouraged him with the example of Michael Turner, who toiled in the shadows of LaDainian Tomlinson in San Diego for four years with about the same amount of action there as Gerhart here before signing a big-money deal with Atlanta. Turner topped 1,300 yards rushing three times in a four-season span and was picked for two Pro Bowls.
Peterson was held out of the first preseason game and might not play this Friday, either, at Buffalo. That hasn't given Gerhart much more of an audition, though, because the Vikings are more concerned about scrutinizing players lower on the depth chart.
"You want him to get some timing and be able to hit some holes and get some things that he may not get a lot of chances to get during the regular season," coach Leslie Frazier said. "But at the same time, we don't want to overexpose him. He's a very important part of our football team, so we're cautious on how we use him in the preseason as well."
The irony for Gerhart, the Heisman Trophy runner-up in 2009, is that he entered the league at a time when more and more teams have given significant playing time to their No. 2 running backs. The leading rusher on most clubs last season took only slightly more than half of the carries, but Peterson handled 71.6 percent of Minnesota's attempts.
Only Tampa Bay (76.7 percent for Doug Martin) and Tennessee (73 percent for Chris Johnson) put their lead running back in heavier use than the Vikings did with Peterson, and just five other teams (Houston, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Washington and St. Louis) topped 59 percent.
"We'll take what we can get. It's the role I have right now. If I get a chance to make a play, I'll make a play," Gerhart said, adding: "With a guy like him who can wear down a defense and do so many things that he does, it's hard to ever have him step off the field. So he's a special talent."
Peterson's 2,097 yards rushing last season was more evidence of that, even though that oh-so-close run at the all-time record meant more watching for Gerhart.
"I could say I was his, ah, behind-the-scenes partner, I guess," Gerhart said, adding: "Working with him every day, that 'wow' factor has kind of worn off. But it's funny. When you have friends and family come by, it's always, 'I just want to meet Adrian.'"