Let's be clear here: no rookie will be defined as a bust after his first season, let alone before he takes part in his first padded practice. At least three seasons should pass before a player is judged, especially a wide receiver like Cordarrelle Patterson of the Minnesota Vikings.
Wide receivers, in general, take longer to develop than most positions. They have a significant amount of learning to do at the NFL level. They need to learn how to get off the line of scrimmage, specifically beat press-man coverage, not to give away their routes while running them and then to determine what their route will be based off of cornerback and safety leverage.
And that's all on just one play.
It's why many wide receivers struggle transitioning from college to the pros. It's also why the bust rate is higher than at any other position. But can Patterson defy this pattern of misfortune?
I have my doubts.
There's no doubt Patterson is electric with the ball in his hands. He glides across the field after the catch, effortlessly cutting through defenses and breaking down defenders like a Jenga tower. He also catches the ball well and demonstrates tremendous leaping ability and body control.
Conversely, there are serious questions about his route-running on the field, which many observers raised during the pre-draft process. One AFC personnel director told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's Bob McGinn raised questions about the way Patterson was used toward the end of his career at Tennessee:
Toward the end of the year, they [Tennessee] started to go away from running Patterson down the field on routes and gave him the ball on reverses and screens, even as a halfback at times. That starts to put a question mark in your head. Why?
Well, there's reasons, and it's just not being as proficient with his route-running and not having the ability to make adjustments during the game.
Combined with his inexperience, there are reasons to wonder if Patterson will be a bust in the NFL.
As the personnel director noted, Patterson received the ball on reverses and screens more often in the latter part of the season. He was still very successful with those types of plays because of his great vision and dynamic talents as a ball-carrier—abilities which can be seen in the video below (at the 11:53 mark).
He does an excellent job making multiple defenders miss en route to the end zone following a reverse from left to right.
His route-running is still a major concern, however. He doesn't handle physical press coverage well, despite being 6'2" and 216 pounds. He also doesn't always show field awareness, losing sight of how much space he has to work with while running his route. The latter issue came up against Florida this past season, when he caught a well-place pass from quarterback Tyler Bray.
It's 1st-and-10 and Patterson is the "X" receiver on the play. He's on the short side of the field and is matched up one-on-one against a Gator cornerback.
When the play begins, Patterson immediately releases outside and down the sideline. The cornerback, who is on the line of scrimmage, takes a step forward with his left foot and is forced to open his hips up outside and run with Patterson.
While running with Patterson, the cornerback sticks out his left arm and jabs him in the inside shoulder. That knocks Patterson off his route and further condenses the room he has to work with. That is exactly what wide receivers coaches don't want to have happen their wideouts.
Generally speaking, whenever a route is designed to go outside, the receiver has to get back "on top" of the route and in front of the cornerback, while also creating room down the sideline for the quarterback to throw the ball. That room is ideally about four yards wide, and Patterson hasn't even attained half of that preferred amount space.
That means that Bray's throw has to be nearly perfect. Bray had a history of being erratic while quarterbacking Tennessee, but on this play his throw is indeed perfect. It's placed on the back shoulder and over the out of bounds line, ensuring that Patterson is the only player capable of making a play on the ball. The cornerback is out of position after working hard to catch up and overrunning the route.
To Patterson's credit, his footwork was nifty on this play, as he was able to haul in the ball, but the spacing was poor as was the receiver's overall execution of the route. (2:18 mark)
Such plays make one wonder if he'll be able to become the high-level player he was drafted to be. It won't be easy because he'll be asked to do quite a bit following the team's trade of Percy Harvin to the Seattle Seahawks.
Right now, Patterson looks most likely to be a first-round bust, which he can avoid by developing his knowledge of routes. The AFC personnel man quoted in the aforementioned Journal Sentinel article sees Patterson's route-running deficiencies as something that can be corrected through coaching:
Mentally, it's going to be a project. Running routes, he doesn't know how to do any of that stuff. You may have to keep it simple for him, but this is football. It's not building a super glider or anything.
It's not building a "super glider," but it's not very easy either. The track record of wide receivers in the pros shows that to be true. But can Patterson succeed at such a demanding position and be a draft-day steal for the Vikings?