The countdown to training camp for the Minnesota Vikings has begun, with morning walkthroughs starting Friday, July 26 at 10:30 a.m. and afternoon practice running from 2:30 p.m. to 4:45 p.m (via the Star Tribune).
Wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson will walk onto campus at Minnesota State University, Mankato with intentions to further impress coaches and fans alike, something the 29th overall pick had no problem accomplishing as a junior last year at the University of Tennessee.
While there are several position battles on the horizon, improvement at wide receiver has taken center stage for the Vikings. Christian Ponder enters his third year behind center, and general manager Rick Spielman has given his 2011 first-round draft pick the weapons to be successful.
Although a lot of attention will be placed on free-agent signing Greg Jennings, a player expected to mentor the young Vikings squad, the true wild card and player bursting with potential is Patterson.
Heading into the 2013 NFL draft, it was completely unexpected that both defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd and cornerback Xavier Rhodes would fall to Minnesota. But trading back into the first round for a talent like Patterson has left the Twin Cities buzzing, an excitement that will carry with the team to Mankato.
The most intriguing part about Patterson's game is its multifaceted nature. He's not simply a speedster who can take the top off a defense—although he's flashed ability stretching the field in college—Patterson excels at making players miss in space, too.
With such playmaking instincts once the ball reaches his hands, the former junior college standout returns kicks and punts, while mixing in runs from scrimmage as a change of pace from his standard wideout duties.
Let's break down each area of Cordarrelle Patterson's game as we head into the first week of training camp.
Kick and Punt Returner
With the departure of Percy Harvin to the Seattle Seahawks and uncertainty surrounding the ability of punt returner Marcus Sherels to make the 53-man roster, Patterson becomes an immediate threat to step in as a returner in both scenarios.
During his time at Tennessee, Patterson returned 25 kickoffs for 671 yards and one touchdown, including a long of 98 yards. His 26.8-yard average per return ranked 21st among all FBS (Division I-A) returners with at least one return per game.
As a comparison, fellow first-round draft selection Tavon Austin averaged 24.6 yards per kick return, ranking 36th overall.
Although his punt-return opportunities were fewer in comparison, Patterson still shined when dropping back on fourth down. With just four punt returns, he totaled 101 yards and one touchdown, including a long of 81 yards.
When you watch film on Patterson, his precise vision and incredible ability to change direction immediately jump out at you. Even with a bird's-eye view as an onlooker, he seems to be a step ahead of oncoming traffic, executing pinpoint cuts and double moves.
Special-teams coordinator Mike Priefer was ecstatic when the Vikings moved back into the first round for Patterson, joking that he "pulled a hamstring running down the hallway" (via Ben Goessling of the Pioneer Press). During minicamp, Priefer added the following:
He's so talented. Just a great athlete. I think he's done a nice job of working on some of the little things: keeping his elbows tighter, keeping his hands up, keeping his hands away from his body a little bit. I think he's more comfortable catching kickoffs right now than punts, like a lot of young guys, but we're making progress in both phases.
While there will still be competition during training camp for kick returner, including converted wide receiver Joe Webb, Patterson comes into Mankato as the odds-on favorite to win the job prior to the regular season.
As Tennessee began to realize how explosive Patterson was in space, they mixed in different looks throughout games, including quick passes behind the line of scrimmage and reverse plays. When Patterson squared up to face the defense, it only took a split second to attack the weak spot.
In 2012, Patterson ran the ball 25 times for 308 yards and three touchdowns, including a long of 67 yards. His average of 12.3 yards per carry ranked first among all players in the FBS with at least 10 rushing attempts.
Again to compare against Austin, who was selected eighth overall by the St. Louis Rams, the former West Virginia standout averaged 8.9 yards per carry, ranking 18th given the same criteria.
While there is no immediate replacement for Percy Harvin—a player Minnesota utilized with great success as a rusher—Patterson has a skill set very similar to that of the embattled former Viking and will be welcomed by Christian Ponder as a fresh look in the offense.
With all of the success described above, don't forget that Patterson has the physical tools to be an elite wide receiver at the NFL level. At 6'2" and 216 pounds, he posted a 4.42 in the 40-yard dash and a 37" vertical at the NFL combine.
In only one year of Division I football, he hauled in 46 receptions for 778 yards and five touchdowns, including a long of 58 yards. He recorded a catch in every one of Tennessee's games, with a high of nine receptions against Troy.
Patterson averaged 16.9 yards per reception, which ranked 29th in the FBS using ESPN's method to qualify (at least 1.875 receptions per team's games played). Austin ranked 284th, with 11.3 yards per reception.
As Patterson becomes acclimated to the team, Jennings has immediately stepped in to mentor the young player and provide advice based on his years in the league. He has already noticed something about Patterson that he stressed him not to lose, a "definitive step" (via Kevin Seifert of ESPN.com):
I remember coming out [of college]. I had that definitive step. That kind of gets washed out because everything they teach you is that they want everything to look the same. The definitive step starts to kind of fade away, but that's what creates that separation. I just told him, do not lose that. Because the more I see him do that, the more I remember when I used to do that and create so much, even more separation. I'm starting to creep that back in.
The sharpness of Patterson's route running allows to him to create space without losing false steps in the process. The work he puts in with Ponder will help to establish timing on routes that frequently require the ball to be out before receiver look back at the quarterback.
Considering Patterson's physical tools, work ethic and mentor in Jennings, he should find himself in a position to make an impact early in Minnesota's season.
Although Jerome Simpson will likely earn starter reps as the No. 2 wide receiver, Patterson won't stay on the sidelines for long. Whether at kick returner or mixing in as a running option to disrupt defenses, Patterson adds an element that few players on the current roster can match.
Jennings also warned defenses (via Kevin Seifert) about letting Patterson get past them in the open field, saying, "If you see the back of his jersey, you might as well stop running, because it's over."
Vikings fans hope to see plenty of the first-round draft pick racing to the end zone this season, wearing an ever-familiar jersey in No. 84.
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