The preseason debut of Minnesota Vikings receiver Cordarrelle Patterson provided a brief, yet tantalizing taste of what could be in store for the vastly talented and versatile first-round pick.
In his one half of action against the Houston Texans Friday night, Patterson showed flashes of skill that conjured memories of two former Vikings receivers.
At 6'2" and a solid 220 pounds, Patterson is clearly not a carbon copy of former do-it-all weapon Percy Harvin, whom the Vikings dealt to the Seattle Seahawks this offseason. He's also probably not a once-in-a-generation talent like Randy Moss, who put together the most dominant rookie season ever by a receiver in 1998.
However, it's easy to see glimpses of both receivers in what Patterson put on film during his NFL inauguration.
In an introduction worthy of Harvin's approval, Patterson took the opening kickoff from five yards deep in the end zone out to the Vikings' 45-yard line. Only a last-ditch effort from the kicker prevented what could have been a score.
The 50-yard jaunt was put in motion in part because of a strong wedge created by Minnesota's return unit but also Patterson's rare combination of suddenness, vision and straight-line speed. His skills and size could be devastating as a returner.
With Harvin and his 3,183 career kick-return yards and five return touchdowns now in Seattle, the Vikings are likely to rely heavily on the rookie to be the primary kick returner. He's certainly well versed in being a playmaker on special teams.
During his only collegiate season at Tennessee, Patterson returned both a kick and a punt for a score while fashioning a 27.9 kickoff return average. He also set an SEC record for combined kick and punt return averages during a single season (27.6 yards).
Even if the raw Patterson cannot quickly develop into a matchup nightmare at receiver like Moss did in '98, he'll have an instant impact on the Vikings' evolving return game.
However, very little about Patterson's debut against the Texans suggests he cannot be trouble for NFL secondaries right away.
Working with backup Matt Cassel, Patterson caught four passes on eight targets for 54 yards. While his first catch was a somewhat simple deep-in route on third down, Patterson showed no fear over the middle portion of the field and even eluded a few tackle attempts on his way to moving the chains.
The catch—which Bleacher Report's Matt Miller breaks down in depth here—was one Vikings fans should probably get used to seeing.
At the height of his powers, Moss made a living off defenses that were forced to respect his vertical speed by playing off with corners and safeties. The middle of the field—especially on deeper in-breaking routes where Moss could press the vertical look—was routinely wide open to haul in 15- to 20-yard receptions.
Given his straight-line speed (4.42 seconds in the 40-yard dash), acceleration (see video below) and ability to win down the field, Patterson could very easily see a similar phenomenon happen early in his NFL career.
Maybe the most promising feature of his debut was the fact that the Vikings didn't need to manufacture ways to get Patterson the football.
Billed as a work in progress in the route-running category, Patterson was frequently given simple ways to acquire the football at Tennessee. Whether via bubble screens, reverses or quick-hitting routes, the Vols occasionally had to work on offense to get the ball in his hands.
However, the Vikings didn't need to get fancy Friday night.
Patterson caught two deep in-breaks, another with veteran footwork along on the sidelines and a fourth on a quick slant that picked up a first down. In all, Patterson's targets traveled—from quarterback's release to receiver's hands—an average of roughly 15 yards in the air. The Vikings didn't force-feed vanilla looks to their rookie; he earned them by getting open down the field.
But even if that trend doesn't continue in the regular season, the Vikings can feel confident in the final result of engineering more simple ways to get him the football.
The same bubble screens that were devastatingly effective to Harvin could be just as dangerous for Patterson, who enters the NFL as possibly the second-most talented open field runner from this year's draft class behind Tavon Austin.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Harvin caught 29 passes behind the line of scrimmage last season, with most coming on bubble and middle screens. The Vikings should have no need to eliminate such a package from their offensive playbook with the difficult-to-tackle Patterson now on board.
Reverses and other types of receiver runs should also be in Patterson's arsenal. During his one year at Tennessee, Patterson ran 25 times (a high number for a receiver) for 308 yards (12.3 average) and three scores.
While the Vikings often gave Harvin snaps as a tailback, Patterson will have to settle for the occasional gadget play to get the ball in running situations.
Maybe most importantly, the Vikings might find his field-stretching abilities difficult to keep on the bench.
Nearly every week, defenses will rightfully focus concentration on containing the equally talented and respected Adrian Peterson.
For most of 2012, the Vikings' 2,000-yard rusher faced defensive fronts designed to stop the run. Although those defenses typically failed to succeed, defensive coordinators were able to employ such defenses because the Vikings lacked a serious downfield passing game.
Peterson is obviously still around, and his knee is another year removed from complete reconstruction. Patterson should now have the ability to turn any decision from a defensive coordinator to focus on slowing Peterson into a quick six points.
Directly comparing Patterson to both Harvin and Moss after one preseason game is probably a stretch, but his 28 snaps in the preseason opener featured as encouraging a start as anyone could have expected for the 29th overall pick in April's draft.
His versatility certainly has a Harvin taste to it, especially in the open field and on special teams. In terms of what he could provide with his physical skill set, Patterson shares more in common with Moss than just a jersey number.
No conclusions should be made after one half of exhibition football, but the Vikings appear to have an emerging talent who could make an instant impact as a rookie in Patterson.