This time last year, Vikings receiver Cordarrelle Patterson appeared poised for a breakout season. He was coming off of a season in which he was named an All-Pro returner, and the hype built throughout training camp that he'd make a big jump as a receiver, as well. That didn't happen.
After losing his starting job to Charles Johnson, Patterson saw his targets drop precipitously midway through the season. By year's end, he was primarily just a returner for Minnesota. Will the former first rounder have a light bulb go on this season and live up to his billing, or will he be yet another high-ceiling super-athlete that washes out of the league because of an inability to adapt to the highly nuanced, intricate pro passing game? That's a question that will surround Patterson this year.
Make or break in Minnesota
Patterson's career trajectory reversed course in 2014 after a strong rookie year. He caught 45 passes for 469 yards and four touchdowns as a rookie, adding three rushing scores and two return touchdowns, but that was followed up by just two scores last season.
He caught 33 passes for 384 yards in Teddy Bridgewater's outstanding rookie campaign. Instead of becoming one of Bridgewater's go-to guys, though, Patterson struggled to carve out a consistent role.
He's undeniably an amazing athlete and electric with the ball. That will never be the issue. What he needs to develop are the parts that come before the ball arrives.
While Patterson's snaps increased (582 vs. 446 in his rookie year), his targets dropped (from 78, to 67), and the consensus among Vikings reporters is that he struggled to grasp the nuances of Norv Turner's new offense, too often lining up in the wrong location or running the incorrect route.
Vikings coaches are apparently still bullish on the former Tennessee Volunteer standout.
"Cordarrelle is doing a good job in this offseason," Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer said back in April. "He has been in better shape coming in, and he is doing a better job of running routes, of competing each and every down. I look forward to him coming on, and I'm a big fan of his. We're just trying to get him to realize all the little intricacies you have to do."
Zimmer tempered those optimistic comments on Monday.
"Cordarrelle is on a good track right now, OK," said Zimmer. "Now, can he sustain? Can he continue to sustain what he's doing? Because like today, I thought he had a good day. In OTAs, I thought he improved. He'll have really good days, and then he'll have some not-so-good days. Really, I think what he needs to do is just the consistency every single day and the consistency in studying, the consistency in getting extra help that he needs if he needs it, running the routes the same all the time and understanding that there's a lot of great athletes that play professional sports, and there's a lot of great athletes that don't make it in."
The way Zimmer finished frames the entire thing:
"To me, the biggest thing with him is that, does he want to be 'Flash' or does he want to be a great receiver? I'm not trying to dog him or anything, but that's really what it is."
In other words, Patterson needs to play disciplined. He needs to master the small things that are required to play receiver in this league. He needs to learn the option routes. He needs to read defenses. It takes more than just being a great athlete.
By Wednesday, Zimmer sounded more optimistic. "I don't know that he's turned a corner yet, but he's definitely rounding one," he said. "So far he's done good. These (three) days he's been impressive. Today's a new day. Hopefully today is just as good as yesterday and yesterday was as good as the day before."
Of course, that consistency is the issue, and may still be this year, but the hope is still out there that Patterson can still become what the team expected when they selected him 29th overall. When the Vikings opened camp this week, there were numerous reports of excellent play and electrifying athleticism to go with along with that inconsistency. That's true for his in-game performance. When you watch him on the field, what stands out is his explosive running ability and decisive, aggressive approach. He runs through tackles and is fearless in the open field.
These attributes were a big part of the reason he was All-Pro as a rookie returner, and special teams coordinator Mike Priefer made it clear he's still in line to be the team's returner. This is huge for Patterson, whose role on special teams more or less guarantees him a roster spot regardless.
"In my mind, Cordarrelle Patterson's the best kick returner in this league," special teams coordinator Mike Priefer said. "Every time he's back there, you guys see teams get nervous, and we get great field position because of it."
That's important, and takes a little bit of pressure off of Patterson to quickly make strides in the passing game. That said, to take the next step in his career, he just has to work his way back into the offense. Over the Vikings' last six games, he was only thrown at eight times.
Patterson reminds me a little bit about another high-ceiling athletic freak with open field prowess: Golden Tate.
Over Tate's first two seasons in the NFL, the former high-school running back struggled with consistency and in grasping the nuances of the position. There were even some saying, heading into his third year with Seattle, that he'd be cut before the season began. Obviously, Tate put things together and has gone from an athlete playing football to a real, bona fide football player. I think there are some parallels there with Patterson.
The good news for Patterson is that he'll have his shot to compete for his starting job again. However, it won't be easy. In addition to Johnson, who emerged as the team's de facto No. 1, the Vikings acquired Mike Wallace this offseason and still have talented Jarius Wright. Patterson will have to scrap.
Greg Jennings' departure, along with his team-leading 93 targets, creates a little bit of a vacuum. Can Patterson step up? Many receivers make a jump from Year 2 to Year 3. Many never figure out the intricate NFL game. Physical talent is not a question, so we'll see how the offseason of preparation affects Patterson's game.
My prediction is that Patterson will see his numbers increase as he acclimates to Turner's offense and gains chemistry with Bridgewater. I am not expecting or an ascension into superstardom, but I think his touchdown number will shoot back up as he regains some confidence and swagger in his game.
My guess right now is that his catch number will remain relatively low, but he'll post a much better yards-per-catch numbers, to get closer to his 16.9 average at Tennessee. It's still too early to write him off.
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