When it comes to finding diamonds in the rough — especially on offense — no NFL franchise has a greater reputation than the New England Patriots.
Former undrafted free agent Chris Hogan was swiped in restricted free agency from the Buffalo Bills and is now an integral part of the Patriots passing game. Longtime Patriot Julian Edelman was a former seventh-round pick and now has over 5,000 receiving yards. And yes, you’ve heard it ad nauseam: Tom Brady was a former sixth-round pick.
The restoration of Cordarrelle Patterson is their latest project. The 2013 Vikings first-round pick couldn’t stick in Minnesota after a scintillating rookie season, left for Oakland in 2017 free agency and was traded to New England after one season with the Raiders. He is now the Patriots’ latest weapon on offense: frequently a decoy, sometimes a receiver, often a runner and rarely used in the same way two games in a row.
“They’re doing really good with him,” said Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer. “Everybody knew Cordarrelle was an outstanding athlete, strong runner, great when he had the ball in his hands. We probably could have done a better job when we had him, after watching them.”
Under the Vikings’ previous regime of Leslie Frazier and offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave, Patterson excelled when asked to carry the football, running for 158 yards and three touchdowns on just 12 carries in 2013. In the ensuing three years under Zimmer, along with coordinators Norv Turner and Pat Shurmur, Patterson ran the ball just 19 times combined, even though Adrian Peterson missed most of the 2014 and 2016 seasons. Patterson lost his place in the starting lineup for most of those three seasons because of his inability to run crisp routes and only began to resurface late in his final season.
In New England he has served as a wild card in coordinator Josh McDaniels’ offense, running it 37 times for 156 yards and catching it 13 times for 120 yards. He’s gotten 17 snaps per game for the first-place Patriots.
“[He has] the vision and athleticism to run the ball in space and has the size and power to be able to get a tough yard or two and run through tackles when he needs to do that,” said Patriots head coach Bill Belichick. “He has good hands, and he’s excellent with the ball in his hands, and he really knows how to set up blocks and how to break tackles and how to gain yards.”
In his Minnesota years, Patterson may have been thought of as a finesse player or a gadget, who relied on his speed to break big plays on offense or special teams. The Patriots, however, seem to value him as much for his toughness.
Last week in a 27-13 win over the New York Jets, Patterson was given the ball a single-back formation twice in the second half when the Patriots needed a yard: once at the 1-yard line for a goal-line plunge (which failed) and again in the play below, where he gashed his way up the middle for a first-down conversion on 4th and 1.
He was also used as a run blocker on about a dozen of his 22 snaps, lining up behind the tight end and playing a big part in the Patriots’ 215-yard day on the ground.
You can see below Patterson blocking for Sony Michel’s 33-yard run. Interestingly, Patterson has had two of his busiest games when the Patriots ran the ball most, even though Patterson didn’t get many touches. Against Miami, Patterson played 41 snaps as New England rushed it 40 times. He played 22 snaps against New York when they carried it 36 times.
The Patriots keep Patterson much closer to the line of scrimmage than the Vikings did. Minnesota lined him up wide 72 percent of the time in 2016. New England only puts him outside 52 percent of the time, and when they do, it’s usually as part of a stack or bunch to create the threat of a bubble screen.
In fact, the Patriots reduced his snaps out wide after the first four weeks, perhaps because they succumbed to the realization the Vikings probably wish they’d had several years ago: that Patterson is most effective when he gets the ball in his hands without having to run a route. Patterson had 74 snaps lined up wide during the first four weeks of the season and only 20 since, according to Pro Football Focus.
New England earnestly introduced Patterson as a running back against Buffalo in Week 8, but he truly broke through against Green Bay in Week 9 with 11 carries for 61 yards. The Patriots pounded Patterson out of the I-formation in the Packers game. During one sequence, they gave it to him four consecutive times for 40 yards and a touchdown.
And as Vikings fans surely remember, Patterson is still effective as a kickoff return man. He has the second-highest average in football at 30.9 yards per return with one touchdown against Chicago.
The Patriots, like the Vikings were, seem to be aware of Patterson’s limitations as a receiver, but they’ve found a way around it by using him creatively in other facets. Now the Vikings have the burden of stopping their former draft pick when they play at Gillette Stadium on Sunday.
“We’ve asked him to do a lot of things,” said Belichick, “and he’s been very ready, willing and able to do all of them.”