Given all the grief fans have given the team about Patterson's snap count, as well as the caution that more than one expert offered heading into last spring's NFL draft, there are more questions than answers surrounding the exciting first-round pick.
Leading the league in kick return yards and average (which includes a game in which the Washington Redskins repeatedly pooched kicks in Patterson's direction), there’s little doubt that he has the athleticism and vision to potentially be a game-changing wide receiver.
But nothing is guaranteed, and aside from Percy Harvin there are very few kick returners who have even been average as receivers.
Patterson still has much to do before he is able to contribute as a primary receiver in the National Football League—much more even than other rookies, including those drafted in the third round of this year's draft, like Keenan Allen and Terrance Williams.
There are over 40 distinct and identifiable traits that spell success for a wide receiver prospect. The most important of those are the skills involved in route-running.
As a technician, there’s little surprise that Patterson is wanting.
From the outset, Patterson has had issues with his release from the line. He’ll rock back and put his weight on the wrong foot, which not only disrupts his balance but his timing as well. Further on down the line, it could create issues gaining separation from defensive backs, and it could cause new liabilities in the passing game (a late route is often a route ripe for an interception).
This allows cornerbacks to play press against him a lot easier despite his frame and makes every route—from a hard slant to a deep post—far less useful.
In addition to his route-running deficiencies, Patterson still is inconsistent in his hand usage and leverage. Against Sam Shields, for example, Patterson couldn’t get much done because he didn’t find ways to keep the defensive back off of him (at least not legally).
Once he’s into the route, he’ll round it off.
Fans will often hear this phrase from talent evaluators about rookie receiver prospects, but it’s more than just a buzzword designed to substitute for quick analysis. It’s a real issue that most receivers have to overcome in order to make an impact on the field.
Even those Hall of Fame receivers who lacked speed were able to run every route at full speed, never needing time to shift gears. Elite receivers chop in their routes and make instant breaks out of their patterns instead of slowing down.
Not only does Patterson lack the consistent ability to instantly step back into his curl routes, his relatively lazy route-running implies a lack of confidence in his ability to change directions without changing speeds.
More to the point, specifically rounding off patterns doesn’t just kill separation for a wideout. It can clue in defensive backs as to the type of route being executed and sometimes betray the entire route package the offense is using. Therefore, Patterson, by rounding off, doesn’t just compromise his route, he can ultimately create interception opportunities on his half of the field for enterprising defenders.
The magnitude of these issues cannot be overstated.
The fastest receivers in the world can’t create separation without the ability to change directions at the drop of the hat. And Cordarrelle Patterson is among the league’s worst at creating separation. When Joe Buck referred to Patterson as the “definition of raw” on Fox's Sunday NFL coverage (drawing upon what coaches said in pregame interviews), these are the problems he was referring to.
This is why Patterson hadn’t seen the field until very recently and a major reason why his role in the offense has been largely relegated to gimmick plays. Until he fixes these issues, his playing time in Minnesota's more conventional passing offense will be minimal.
In other words, his physical gifts won’t be enough.
Between 1999 and 2013, there have been 77 receivers who have recorded a 40-yard dash time of 4.42 or faster (4.42 being the 40 time of both Cordarrelle Patterson and Greg Jennings). Of those 77, two-thirds hadn't recorded a single season of 500 yards or more, while many of those that did so only once or barely broke the 500-yard threshold.
Part of the reason is because they were required to be more than kick returners or receivers on screen passes. This was a big part of the issue with Devin Aromashodu, whose best season with the Vikings saw him catch 26 passes for 468 yards.
That’s why 47.6 percent of Patterson's receptions have been behind the line of scrimmage, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required). By comparison, the most YAC-heavy receiver in the NFL today (aside from Patterson), Golden Tate, has had only 26.2 percent of his passes behind the line of scrimmage.
Patterson’s targets have followed a similar number, but his downfield catch rate of 50 percent—among the league's worst—is particularly worrisome.
Not only does this make him useless as a deep threat, it moves almost every route off the board in terms of play design when he’s on the field.
The good news about Patterson is that he displayed very few of these issues during the Seattle Seahawks game in Week 11. His release has gained some level of consistency, and he was able to get behind Byron Maxwell on more than one occasion.
Even though Richard Sherman had a bad day, there wasn’t much Patterson could do when lined up against the All-Pro corner. While that’s to be expected, it does demonstrate the degree of growth he still has ahead of him. Last year, Sherman had a coverage breakdown (a clearly open receiver when man-on-man) on over 15 percent of snaps.
This speaks to Sherman’s overall effectiveness (his breakdown figure was among the best in the league) as well as Patterson’s struggles. Against Green Bay, Patterson found himself open only once in 13 patterns run in which corner Sam Shields provided coverage. Thus, he was shut down by a good, but not great, cornerback.
The concerns coming out of college about Patterson's hands seem to have faded away, although he’s been given relatively easy passes to catch and has had a low sample size of targets. He has a good catch rate, dropping less than five percent of catchable balls headed his way, but we won't truly know if those pre-draft concerns will come to fruition until later into his career.
There’s no question that Patterson can use the remainder of his rookie season to continue to grow. He remains inconsistent in his technique, but Vikings fans can take heart in the fact that he's shown recent improvement—most notably in the Seahawks game, where he's taken the most snaps.
Patterson is as raw as advertised. There's very little doubt about that, and to expect anything else would be to set the bar too high. At the same time, he's shown flashes of potential brilliance, and in those flashes, concerned observers of the purple and gold can can see a star in the making.