Cordarrelle Patterson is Reinventing Himself in Atlanta

Cordarrelle Patterson
AP Photo/Brynn Anderson

In a season with no shortage of surprises through 7 weeks of action, perhaps the greatest surprise of them all is the impressive play of Cordarrelle Patterson. Through 6 games, Patterson is on pace to set career highs in every major statistical category. In fact, he has already surpassed some of his current career highs despite the season being less than halfway over. Cordarrelle Patterson seems to have taken advantage of his increased usage in a versatile role to reinvent himself as a football player, and no one is happier with this reinvention than the Atlanta Falcons.

Cautious Optimism

Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Drafted in the first round by the Minnesota Vikings in 2013, Cordarrelle Patterson was welcomed with mixed reactions. Some viewed Patterson as a potentially elite weapon due to his rare combination of size and speed (Patterson had the 7th fastest time for the WR position at the 2013 NFL Combine). Such hopeful fans went as far as to make tentative comparisons to Randy Moss, whose number Patterson took after being drafted by Moss’s former team.

However, some fans were not as sold on Patterson’s ability as a WR, citing his 1 year of top tier college football experience as a concern. Such fans viewed Patterson as a very raw prospect who was incredibly gifted physically but perhaps not quite as polished as a receiver.

Rookie Recognition

Pioneer Press: John Autey

Regardless of fan perception, the Vikings were clearly going to try to get their first round pick as involved as possible once the season started. In his one year at Tennessee, Cordarrelle Patterson saw a notable number of touches at running back, wide receiver, and kick returner. Minnesota used Patterson in a similar “swiss army knife” manner during his rookie season, in which Patterson caught 45 passes, rushed 12 times, and returned 43 kicks.

While Patterson’s receiving and rushing totals left something to be desired, he proved to be electric in the return game. Patterson was second in the league with 1,393 kick return yards, and he was the only player in the league to record 2 kick return touchdowns. Such numbers were good enough to earn Cordarrelle Patterson his first Pro Bowl selection and his first All-Pro nod.

Sophomore Slump

Cordarrelle Patterson’s numbers dropped across the board in his sophomore campaign. He recorded fewer receiving yards on fewer receptions while also recording fewer rushing yards on a decreased number of rushing attempts. Additionally, Patterson’s kick return numbers took a hit in his second season, which saw him return fewer kicks and record fewer kick return yards than his rookie year while also failing to score a return TD all season.

Inconsistent Opportunity

The decrease in offensive opportunity for Cordarrelle Patterson in his second year in the league proved to be a pattern that carried over into the next year as well. In his third season, Patterson’s usage once again decreased, perhaps due in part to the Vikings’ acquisition of WR Stefon Diggs. Playing on just 6% of Minnesota’s offensive snaps, Patterson caught only 2 passes and rushed the ball only 1 time all season. He did, however, return to form as a returner, once again topping 1,000 kick return yards. He also managed to score 2 kick return touchdowns in 2015 despite returning the lowest number of kicks in any season to that point in his career.

In his 4th and final season with the Vikings, Cordarrelle Patterson actually saw an increase in usage. He played on 50% of offensive snaps and received more touches than he had in his rookie year. However, Patterson was less effective with the touches that he received, gaining fewer yards and scoring fewer touchdowns than he did in his rookie year.


Perhaps this decrease in effectiveness is what convinced the Minnesota Vikings to part ways with Cordarrelle Patterson, who went on to join 3 different teams over the span of the next 4 seasons. With each passing season, Patterson’s offensive usage decreased. He went from playing 43% of offensive snaps with Oakland in 2017, to 22% with New England in 2018, and finally to 19% in both 2019 and 2020 with Chicago.

While his offensive snap percentage decreased, Cordarrelle Patterson actually received the most touches of his entire career with Chicago in 2020. However, this increased usage was due in large part to an injury sustained by starting running back David Montgomery. While starting at running back in place of the injured Montgomery for one game, Patterson received 15.73% of his entire touches for the season. Even with this increased usage for the season, Patterson once again failed to gain as many yards or score as many touchdowns as he did in his rookie campaign despite touching the ball 149% more often.

Conversely, Patterson played on a higher percentage of special teams snaps every season since leaving Minnesota than he did in any season while with the Vikings. It seemed that Patterson may have reached his peak as an offensive contributor and may be relegated to return duties in the coming years.

A Fresh Start

When Cordarrelle Patterson joined the Atlanta Falcons in the offseason leading up to the 2021 NFL season, many expected him to retain the return specialist/gadget player role that he had occupied for most of his career. Mike Davis was consistently lauded as the lead back in the Atlanta offense. Even Wayne Gallman, who joined the team late in the offseason, was seen as more likely to significantly contribute to the running game than Cordarrelle Patterson.

Patterson started the season somewhat quietly. Touching the ball 9 times in the opener, he gained 67 yards and did not score, adding 1 kick return for 25 yards. While the number of touches was notable given Patterson’s career average of 3.02 touches per game, no one really expected his increased role to be sustainable.

In Week 2 of the 2021 NFL season, Cordarrelle Patterson turned 12 touches into 69 yards and 2 touchdowns while also adding 1 kick return for 27 yards. This performance marked just the second time in Patterson’s entire career that he scored 2 touchdowns in one game.

Patterson proceeded to turn in the first 3 touchdown effort of his career just two weeks later, scoring all 3 touchdowns through the air. 2 weeks after that, he added another touchdown, bringing his total to 6 on the year in just 6 games. In Patterson’s entire career, the highest number of touchdowns that he has scored in a single season is 7. He is now 1 touchdown away from tying that total, and the NFL season is not even halfway over. Suffice it so say, Patterson is revitalizing his career in a way that no one could have expected or predicted.

Personal Records in Sight

Cordarrelle Patterson’s current career highs (not including the 2021 season) are as follows:

TargetsReceptionsReceiving YdsReceiving TDRush AttemptsRush YardsRush TDTouchesTotal YardsTotal TD
Career High77524694642323856277
Year Set2013201620132013202020202013202020132013
Table 1. Cordarrelle Patterson’s Career Highs pre-2021. Stats courtesy of Pro Football Reference.

So far in 2021, Patterson’s stats are as follows:

TargetsReceptionsReceiving YardsReceiving TDRush AttemptsRush YardsRush TDTouchesTotal YardsTotal TD
Table 2. Cordarrelle Patterson’s 2021 Stats. Stats courtesy of Pro Football Reference.

If Cordarrelle Patterson continues his current pace, he would finish the 2021 NFL season with the following statistics (career seasonal averages and highs included for ease of reference):

TargetsReceptionsReceiving YardsReceiving TDRush AttemptsRush YardsRush TDTouchesTotal YardsTotal TD
2021 (Pace)10276.50838.6111.39155.89660.115.61232.391,498.8917.00
Career Averages4127.00260.881.2520.88127.131.0047.88388.002.25
Career Highs77524694642323856277
Table 3. Comparing Cordarrelle Patterson’s Current 2021 Pace to Career Averages and Highs. Stats courtesy of Pro Football Reference.

Given the absolutely staggering touchdown pace that Patterson is on, it is not really reasonable to expect him to go the entirety of the season averaging 1 touchdown per game.

However, his projected numbers can still serve as a reliable indicator of just how quick of a start Patterson is off to so far this season. He has already set a career high in rushing yards, and he needs only 1 touchdown and 98 total yards to match career highs in those categories as well. If Cordarrelle Patterson were to maintain his current pace, he would comfortably set career highs in every major statistical category for both rushing and receiving.

Increased Usage

The resurgence, or perhaps reinvention, of Cordarrelle Patterson is not solely due to unsustainable efficiency. Yes, it is likely that his touchdown scoring pace regresses a bit as the season progresses. However, his statistical pace is likely sustainable in every other major category given the changes in his usage compared to years past.

While Patterson’s snap percentage (30%) is not the highest of his career, it is higher than any single year in Minnesota. Still, the secret to Patterson’s current success does not lie in a higher snap count; rather, it lies in more meaningful snaps.

Prior to 2021, Cordarrelle Patterson had only managed to get double digit touches in 4 out of 127 games (3.15%). So far in 2021, Patterson is averaging 13.67 touches per game, which is over four times higher than his career average (3.02 touches per game). If he continues his current pace, he will finish the season with roughly 232 touches, which is nearly triple his previous career high for a single season and equivalent to roughly 60% of his career total prior to 2021.

Breathing Room

So far in 2021, the Falcons have used Cordarrelle Patterson both more frequently and in a different manner than he has been used in years past. At 2.3 yards, Patterson’s average depth of target so far this season is the lowest of his career (since Pro Football Reference started tracking the statistic in 2018); however, Patterson has turned this low ADOT into 11.0 yards per reception, one of the highest marks of his career. He has accomplished this in part by averaging 7.4 yards after the catch per reception (YAC/R).

Per NFL Savant, 70.27% of Patterson’s targets thus far have been short yardage targets on either first or second down. Only 5.40% of Patterson’s targets this season have been deep targets. See Figure 1 below for a full target breakdown.

Figure 1. Cordarrelle Patterson Target Location Breakdown. Stats Courtesy of NFL Savant.

Per NFL Savant, 53.70% of Patterson’s rush attempts so far this season have been either to the tackle or around the edge on first or second down. When considering first down only, this number jumps to 62.16%. See Figure 2 below for a full rushing attempt breakdown.

Figure 2. Cordarrelle Patterson Rushing Direction Breakdown. Stats Courtesy of NFL Savant.

It is clear that Atlanta is trying to get Cordarrelle Patterson involved early and often. More importantly, they are trying to get him the ball quickly and in space. Doing so allows Patterson to utilize the skills that he has honed as a returner and do what he does best: make people miss. His heavy utilization on first and second down prevents him from being boxed into a predictable role, avoiding the clear passing or rushing situations often seen on 3rd or 4th down.

However, the credit for Cordarrelle Patterson’s success should not be given solely to the Atlanta Falcons’ coaching staff. While they have attempted to get Patterson the ball with enough space to operate, they have not always been successful. Patterson is currently at the lowest yards before contact per attempt (1.9) of his career (since Pro Football Reference started recording the stat in 2018). Though the scheme seems to have failed him at times, he has made the most of his opportunities by averaging one of the highest yards after contact per attempt (YAC/Att) numbers of his career at 2.4 YAC/Att, which is good enough to place Patterson 10th in the entire league for YAC/Att thus far this season. As such, Patterson deserves a lot of the credit for his success in the run game as well.

Seeking Sustained Success

While the Atlanta Falcons deserve some praise for the resurgence of Cordarrelle Patterson, Patterson clearly set out to reinvent himself this season. He has successfully done so thus far this season both as a rusher (indicated by a high YAC) and as a receiver (0.00% drop rate on increased opportunity). If Patterson continues to play at this level, he will shatter his previous career highs, and, when all is said and done, he may very well play himself into a sizable contract next year. For now, Cordarrelle Patterson will look to continue providing a much needed spark to the offense of the Atlanta Falcons as they fight for a playoff spot.

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  1. benparker639

    October 30, 2021 at 10:25 PM

    That’s good stuff, C.J. It’s so unusual to see an NFL player in his 6th season have a huge spike in production levels, regardless of position.

  2. C.J. Brighton

    October 31, 2021 at 1:04 AM

    Thank you so much, Ben! I certainly agree. I think a large contributing factor to Patterson’s resurgence is Atlanta’s commitment to get the ball to him in space and let him work. That being said, you make a great point. I really cannot think of a good comparison off of the top of my head. I honestly think that a change of teams (or coaching staff overhaul) would have to be involved in order to set a player up for such a drastic role increase. Coincidentally, one player that comes to mind is Patterson’s former teammate, Stefon Diggs. Diggs saw a 155.43% increase in targets in his first season in Buffalo vs his seasonal average in MIN. That being said, Patterson is currently on pace for a 273.40% increase in his total touches compared to his career HIGH. So the Diggs comparison still does not really fall into the same league as the drastic increase in production that Patterson has demonstrated thus far this season. That is a very interesting question that I will have to look into further when I get the chance! Either way, I am very happy for Patterson. He has always been so much fun to watch with the ball in his hands.

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