One is a first-round pick from the best college football conference in all the land—an athletic freak expected by many to take the second-year leap to stardom.
The other is a castoff former seventh-round pick from tiny Grand Valley State—a promising but otherwise little-known player already on his third NFL team.
Only one young receiver is developing into a consistent, reliable option for the Minnesota Vikings. But it isn't Cordarrelle Patterson, the first player described above. It's actually Charles Johnson, the forgotten-about receiver listed second.
The numbers from the last month tell an enlightening story. And the film from those games fills in the important details.
|Charles Johnson and Cordarrelle Patterson: Weeks 10-12|
|Patterson in Week 9: 1 catch, 9 yards|
Over the Vikings' last three games, Johnson has played 141 snaps, received 21 targets and made 11 receptions for 180 yards. He leads Minnesota receivers in all four statistics.
Meanwhile, Patterson has played just 71 snaps, received five targets and made four receptions for 42 yards. There were 104 NFL receivers who had more receiving yards than Patterson over that same three-game stretch. Include Minnesota's win over Washington to start November, and Patterson has just five catches and 51 receiving yards over his last four games.
Johnson's rise and Patterson's fall reached their climax last Sunday, when the Vikings played Johnson on all 50 offensive snaps against the Carolina Panthers and Patterson on just three overall (zero in the first half). Johnson caught just two passes for a modest 41 yards, including a 24-yard gain off a bubble-screen play once reserved for Patterson. The former first-round pick did not catch a pass for the first time in his NFL career.
It's hard to decide which is more surprising: Johnson's ascension to the No. 1 receiver in Minnesota or Patterson's spiraling fall from grace.
Johnson is probably fortunate to still be wearing an NFL uniform.
A seventh-round pick of the Green Bay Packers in 2013, Johnson battled a knee injury in his first training camp and eventually wound up on the Packers' practice squad. He was claimed six weeks into the season by the Cleveland Browns, who almost immediately discovered Johnson had a torn ACL and would need season-ending surgery.
For most late draft picks, that could have been the end of his NFL story. Not Johnson.
He returned healthy to Browns camp this past summer, made it onto Cleveland's practice squad to open the season and then received a 53-man roster invite from the Vikings after just three weeks. Johnson caught his first NFL pass in Week 5 against the Packers, and by the time he faced his original team again, he had already jumped Patterson on the depth chart.
His coming-out party came in Week 11, when he caught six passes for 87 yards against the Chicago Bears. A week later against the Packers, his team-high 11 targets were turned into 52 receiving yards, including a 22-yard touchdown. His final numbers against Green Bay would have been significantly higher had he and rookie Teddy Bridgewater connected a number of missed openings.
Meanwhile, Patterson has gone from breakout star to afterthought.
Many believed he was ready to take a big jump in his sophomore season, given the frantic end to his rookie campaign that included three receiving touchdowns and two rushing scores over his final four games. His rare athletic ability and run-after-the-catch skills appeared primed to make Patterson a star in Norv Turner's offense.
It simply hasn't materialized. Patterson ran for 102 yards and a touchdown in Week 1, but he'll now be lucky if he eclipses any of his receiving numbers from his rookie season. As it stands now, Patterson is on pace to catch 40 passes for 487 yards and one touchdown, but even 10 more catches feels like a stretch given his five-reception totals from the last four games. Patterson caught 45 passes for 469 yards and four scores as a rookie.
Even his thrilling dominance in the kicking game has evaporated. After averaging a league-best 32.4 yards and scoring two touchdowns on kickoff returns in 2013, Patterson is now averaging 25.5 yards with no scores this season. His long return is 49 yards.
A number of injuries have held Patterson back at times. But so has Johnson's emergence as a receiver who simply gets open more frequently and more consistently than the still raw, underdeveloped Patterson.
Against the Packers, Johnson consistently created throwing windows. At least four times, Bridgewater threw erratically and missed completions, and Johnson dropped one well-executed slant pattern. But the two also hooked up for a 22-yard touchdown in which Johnson beat the slot coverage of Tramon Williams and got behind the Packers defense for an easy pitch-and-catch.
Later, the Vikings missed a golden opportunity to change the game when Johnson sprung open on a corner route. He sold the post and had a free release to the outside against cornerback Sam Shields, who bought the original move and slipped as he attempted to recover. The third-down throw was a little wide, and Johnson couldn't make the catch along the sidelines.
On Minnesota's final scoring drive, Johnson found space against zone coverage, sat down in the opening and made an 11-yard reception. He then caught the two-point conversion on a well-designed play across the formation.
Against the Panthers, Johnson helped set up the Vikings' first touchdown when he accelerated upfield on a well-blocked bubble screen for 24 yards. His more impressive play came a quarter later, when on 3rd-and-13, Johnson ran a deep dig route and hauled in a 17-yard throw from Bridgewater to move the chains.
Johnson seemingly does everything as a receiver in a more refined manner than Patterson. He's sharper in and out of his routes and more aware of his surroundings. He does more of the little things required to get open in the NFL.
Patterson, on the other hand, remains reliant on his physical ability. The Vikings have avoided force-feeding him touches, in an effort to accelerate his education as an NFL receiver. The learning process is simply taking much longer than expected. It's becoming more fair to wonder if he'll ever be anything more than a gadget player dependent on manufactured opportunities.
His overall inefficiency is highlighted in the advanced numbers. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Patterson has run 344 routes but totaled just 350 receiving yards. His yards-per-route-run average sits at 1.02, which ranks 83rd out of 91 qualifying receivers.
|Cordarrelle Patterson and Charles Johnson: YPPR|
|Yards per Route Run||NFL Rank|
|91 qualifying WRs|
Translation: Patterson is running plenty of routes (he has run more than the likes of Calvin Johnson, Odell Beckham and A.J. Green) but also failing to warrant targets or produce yards. He's like the running back averaging 3.0 yards per carry.
Johnson is not having similar problems. He is averaging a healthy 1.78 yards per route run, which is a full half-yard better than any other receiver on the Vikings roster. Typically, the very best receivers in the game average over 2.0 for an entire season. Johnson obviously hasn't been dominant, but he's making the most of opportunities to get open in the passing game.
The NFL is a funny business. Draft position will always come into play in terms of usage, but situations often transcend acquisition history. The Vikings have simply recognized the reality: Johnson, the journeyman late-round pick, is outperforming Patterson, the prized first-rounder.
Zach Kruse covers the NFC North for Bleacher Report.