Former Louisiana Tech and current San Francisco 49ers rookie wide receiver Quinton Patton may be expecting a much heavier workload than he initially may have thought for this upcoming year.
In fact, Patton may very well be en route to a stellar rookie season in San Francisco, the conditions of which are partially the result of his own efforts but also combined with a unique situation that may present him with a chance to thrive.
"Great moments are born from great opportunity," was the statement the late coach Herb Brooks said to the 1980 United States men's hockey team that faced off against the Soviet Union during the Winter Olympics that year. In a sense, that phrase directly applies to Patton. While the sports and situations are entirely different, Patton is looking square in the face of a great opportunity. Those opportunities breed great moments.
Patton just has to seize them.
When Patton was drafted by the 49ers in the fourth round of the 2013 NFL draft, he must have recognized the situation that he would be walking into. He knew that there was already a talented wide receiver named Michael Crabtree atop San Francisco's depth chart. He was aware that the 49ers had also traded for veteran receiver Anquan Boldin a number of weeks before the draft.
Patton must have learned soon after that two receivers, Mario Manningham and Kyle Williams, who had their respective 2012 seasons cut short, would likely return and compete for playing time. He also would have been made aware of the 49ers' 2012 first-round draft pick A.J. Jenkins wanting to make a bigger impact in 2013.
All of this spelled the obvious for Patton: He would have to work hard, and then some, if he wanted to have a chance to play a pivotal role in the San Francisco offense.
Yet the 49ers must have liked what they saw in Patton when they drafted him. Initially projected by CBS Sports as high as a second-round draft pick, Patton fell into the fourth round, and San Francisco jumped on him, using the 128th overall pick.
CBS Sports' Pete Prisco gave the acquisition an "A" grade and further described it by saying:
[Patton is] a tremendously productive receiver with the quicks and acceleration to thrive in the slot. [He has] outstanding value in the late fourth and can contribute immediately between Michael Crabtree and Anquan Boldin. (cbssports.com)
Indeed, Patton's selection was a great value pick for the 49ers. In two years at Louisiana Tech, Patton boasted 183 receptions for 2,594 yards and 24 touchdowns, via sports-reference.com. As stated by Prisco, the 49ers would benefit from a good slot receiver, and Patton would be in perfect position to fit the bill.
All he had to do was work for it.
Patton's enthusiasm was soon noticed by the 49ers' coaching staff. As reported by Steve Corkran of the San Jose Mercury News, Patton flew out to Santa Clara from his home in Nashville on his own dime, rented a car and began heading towards the 49ers' practice facility. Yet the 49ers had to turn him away, as rookies were not allowed to show up until rookie camp the following week.
While it must have been somewhat embarrassing, the early arrival and subsequent turnaround caught head coach Jim Harbaugh's attention. He later stated:
The fact that he would buy his own ticket, fly out here, just speaks volumes about him. To be honest with you, he reminds me of me. That's something I would have done. I love it. If he plays for ten or 15 years in this league, every time somebody talks about Quinton Patton, they're going to recall the story, He was so gung-ho to get his NFL career started that he flew out to San Francisco on his own dime. (via mercurynews.com)
Sure, the enthusiasm is great, yet how would Patton fare when he took the field during rookie camp and later during the team's organized team activities (OTAs)? That was the big question. Would he be able to learn the offense, and would he provide the legitimate competition that the 49ers' coaching staff wanted to see?
Initially, it would have been reasonable to assume that Patton would be competing with receivers like Jenkins, Mannhingham and Williams for the third or fourth receiver on San Francisco's depth chart. Yet there were plenty of factors that contributed to Patton's situation.
For starters, there are the pending returns of Manningham and Williams, both of whom suffered knee injuries last year. Both are decent, if not stellar, receiving options, yet the questions remain as to how effective they will be in 2013 coming off injury. In addition, both receivers are set to be free agents after this upcoming season. While playing in a contract year might provide extra incentive for both Manningham and Williams to perform at a high level, will the 49ers focus on that aspect or opt to build towards the future and focus more attention and resources on younger, locked-up talent like Patton?
Then there was the direct competition between Patton and Jenkins. Jenkins, who endured a zero-catch rookie season last year, figures to be a much better force in 2013. He spent much of the offseason adding muscle to his frame and trying to learn more about playing the position at a better level.
Yet there are still reports that Jenkins has not yet emerged as the type of player awarded a first-round draft selection. Grant Cohn of the Santa Rosa Press Democrat wrote that Jenkins has still not proven that he can adjust to the top tier of play. While there are momentary flashes of brilliance, the consistency is not there, despite the touts of coaches like Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman. Cohn elaborates:
Jenkins is striving to reach the speak-for-itself level. So far, his comfort zone consists of private practices and half-speed drills. But if the 49ers were to make a depth chart today and Mario Manningham were healthy, Jenkins would be the No.4 wide receiver, at best. Anquan Boldin, Kyle Williams and Manningham would be the top-three guys, no matter what Harbaugh tells the media about private matters. (pressdemocrat.com)
Jenkins' struggles could mean good news for Patton in the short term.
Before OTAs, Patton would have most likely seen himself as the third or fourth receiver on San Francisco's depth chart. Then, only two days into OTAs, starting receiver Michael Crabtree suffered an Achilles injury which shook up the depth chart.
While Anquan Boldin took over the top slot on the chart, and rightfully so given his performance during OTAs, the remainder of the wide receivers were essentially left in open competition. Right in the middle of that was Patton.
Patton will continue to compete throughout the remainder of the offseason as the regular season draws near.
His chances for climbing up the depth chart shall be the direct result of how fast he can learn the 49ers offense, something that rookie wide receivers often struggle to do. While he possesses the skill set and work ethic to succeed, can he put those elements into practice?
Fortunately, Patton has a number of things going for him. For starters, Patton does not feel the added pressure inherent with Crabtree's loss. According to Ross Jones of FOX Sports, Patton puts enough pressure on himself, and he has shown an ability to make the transition from the collegiate level to the NFL much easier. That is certainly good news for Patton and the 49ers.
As far as learning the San Francisco offense, Patton has other assets which he has not hesitated to use: the veterans. Patton has sought the advice of fellow teammates Boldin and Crabtree, both of whom have emerged as some of the top receivers in the NFL. Even with Crabtree out, Patton still looks to him as a "big brother."
I don't like the word "rookie." I'm a ballplayer. I'm trying to be the best, and everything else is for the coaches to decide. I just wanted to come in and make an impact on the team. Whether he was here or not, I was going to try to get on the field the best way I could. But you can't replace a Crabtree. You just got to step up. (via csnbayarea.com)
While the advice of his teammates will certainly benefit Patton over time, the young receiver still has to put that knowledge into practice. If he can, Patton will certainly have a chance to rise on San Francisco's depth chart and have that opportunity to make a sizable impact on the offense, something agreed upon by Bay Sports Net writer Jen Cosgriff. She writes:
Perhaps the biggest surprise to come out of OTAs is the development of fourth-round pick Quinton Patton. If his success during practices can translate to games, the wide receiver out of Louisiana Tech could turn out to be the biggest steal of the draft. (baysportsnet.com)
So far, all the talk and accolades point to Patton becoming a legitimate and possibly even stellar wide receiver in the NFL. Yet the road is not necessarily that easy. Despite some impressive moments during rookie camp and OTAs, Patton still has not emerged as a top contender for the second or even third receiver thus far.
Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee describes this further by writing:
The gap between the number one receiver, Anquan Boldin, and everyone else is wide. That's obvious even to a casual observer. What the 49ers have right now is a number one wideout and a bunch of threes and fours. What they want to see in training camp and the preseason is someone taking that next step and distinguishing himself from the pack. Who will do that? (sacbee.com)
It is possible that the 49ers' incumbent receivers Manningham and Williams may have the best shot at claiming a higher role during the regular season. It is also possible that Jenkins may fill that need. Thus far, it is apparent that the job is still wide open behind Boldin.
Cohn wrote in another article for the Santa Rosa Press Democrat that he expects Patton to see a mere 50 snaps during the regular season, certainly assuming that Patton will not emerge as one of the top receivers in the 49ers offense. He does state however that Patton may get in on more plays as the season progresses and he learns the offense more thoroughly.
Yet let us assume that Patton can start to distinguish himself as a top target for quarterback Colin Kaepernick and San Francisco's offense. If Patton can do that, it is reasonable to see him on the field for at least 500 snaps.
He will have to earn that job, however.
Patton will have to prove that he is better than Jenkins and a more viable option than the oft-injured Williams. He may also have to showcase his talent above that of other receivers Ricardo Lockette and Chad Hall who may yet emerge as surprises during training camp.
Still, Patton has that one element going for him: opportunity. As coach Herb Brooks stated over 30 years ago, those opportunities are what create great moments.
Patton has a chance to earn those very soon.
Peter Panacy is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report covering the San Francisco 49ers. Follow him @PeterMcShots on Twitter.