The search for positives in the rubble of the Minnesota Vikings' lost 2013 season is a tedious one.
Three different starting quarterbacks have fallen flat on their faces. The defense is ranked near the bottom of the league in several important categories. Even the great Adrian Peterson has looked mostly mortal.
After eight weeks, the Vikings—a 2012 playoff team—are 1-6, in last place in the NFC North and without a win in the United States.
Those still looking for a bright spot amid the darkness of this season can point to rookie receiver and returner Cordarrelle Patterson.
Back in April, the Vikings made the most aggressive move of the first round to get Patterson, giving up four picks—second-, third-, fourth- and seventh-rounders—to take the raw Tennessee receiver at No. 29 overall. While Minnesota gave up the opportunity to plug the holes that are now plaguing this roster by executing the trade, Patterson has at least lived up to his side of the bargain so far.
On Sunday night, and in the last-ever meeting between the Vikings and Green Bay Packers at the Metrodome, Patterson caught the opening kickoff nine yards deep and went end zone to end zone for a 109-yard score. It would be one of the lone highlights for the Vikings, who gave up 44 points and were effectively blown up the rest of the way.
The impact of Patterson on kick returns has no equal in the NFL this season.
After eight weeks, the rookie is leading the league in the following statistical categories: kick return yards (703), average return (39.1), long return (109) and return touchdowns (two). If the season ended today, he would be a strong bet to be both a Pro Bowl and All-Pro selection as the NFC returner.
Yet his ascendancy as a returner hasn't translated to instant success as a receiver. Among rookies, Patterson doesn't even rank in the top 10 in receptions or receiving yards. Overall, he's fifth on Minnesota's roster with 13 catches and fourth with 133 yards.
|Looking at Top WR Picks from 2013 Draft|
|Snap data via Pro Football Focus|
The Vikings have remained committed to bringing him along slowly, and an offense that likes to go to battle with a fullback and tight end doesn't always offer easy ways to get a third receiver on the field. Even when the Vikings do go with sets of three or more receivers, Jarius Wright has routinely received the call over Patterson.
But in a season that is so clearly slipping away, it stands to reason that the Vikings will continue to incorporate him into the offense more and more. His playmaking ability is simply too obvious for a struggling offense to keep him on the bench.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Patterson has played a total of 40 offensive snaps the last two games—which represents the most playing time he's received over a two-game stretch this season.
Still, even with an uptick in playing time recently, Patterson's 103 offensive snaps currently rank 117th among NFL receivers.
For context, consider that Myles White, an undrafted free agent the Packers signed to the active roster just two weeks ago, has played a total of 107 snaps for Green Bay this season. Even Joe Webb, a converted quarterback, has played more snaps than Patterson in four of Minnesota's seven games.
The time for the Vikings to unleash Patterson is now. Burying a talented rookie on the bench while a season goes up in flames provides nothing to a raw, athletic player who needs the live-game reps to learn the job. The Vikings really have nothing to gain by continuing to feed Jerome Simpson or Wright the majority of the snaps opposite Greg Jennings every week.
And considering Webb is receiving nearly equal playing time, it's hard to buy an argument from the Vikings that Patterson is "too raw" to play right now.
As an offense, Minnesota is averaging 246 total yards and just 174 passing over the last three games. This isn't a unit that should fear messing up any kind of rhythm or momentum on the offensive side by giving a rookie receiver more snaps. Offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave, who has struggled week-in and week-out to get the most of his offensive personnel, should spend the rest of this season developing creative ways to involve Patterson in the passing game.
The Vikings are simply out of excuses for keeping Patterson—an electric athlete with the ball in his hands—tied to the bench.
This season has been one of disappointment and regression for Minnesota. Change is on the horizon, both at head coach and quarterback. The defense needs a complete re-haul. But the Vikings can spring hope for the future by starting to feature Patterson on offense.
He's proven his worth as the game's most dangerous kickoff returner. Now it's time to expand Patterson's role on offense, where the Vikings could really use some reason for optimism.