Cordarrelle Patterson’s NFL career began with him as a purple blur for the Minnesota Vikings.
In the second game of his rookie season, he took the opening kickoff 105 yards for a touchdown. In Week 8, he tied the NFL record for the longest play in the history of the league by taking the opening kickoff 109 yards to the house. The 6-foot-2, 216-pound rookie, who clocked in at 4.42 in the 40-yard-dash and recorded a 37-inch vertical leap at the scouting combine, scored nine touchdowns in 2013. A promising career surely was in store for Patterson if he played that well after only one season at Tennessee that was preceded by two years of junior college football.
For a while, he was mostly a special teams ace who was used on gadget plays. As a kick returner he has been great — four-time All-Pro — but he was never able to turn that ideal size and speed into a consistent threat as a wide receiver. He bounced around the league for some years — with stops in Oakland, New England, and Chicago — before signing with the Atlanta Falcons in 2021. At the end of that season, the players voted him to the NFL Top 100 list for the first time in his career — No. 73.
The Falcons finally found a way to make Patterson a consistent threat on offense. He still pulled some kick return duty for the Falcons, but his 18 returns that season were the fewest of his career. Patterson did his damage on offense, totaling 1,166 yards from scrimmage and scoring 11 touchdowns in 2021. The Falcons decided to go all in on a strategy that other teams only used sparingly — they started Patterson at running back.
During his one season with the New England Patriots in 2018, they began experimenting with him in the backfield as a true part of the running game instead of solely on jet sweeps. When he signed with the Chicago Bears, they took it one step further. In his second season with them, he carried the ball 64 times.
Then Bears’ head coach Matt Nagy saw potential in Patterson as a running back. So when quarterbacks coach Dave Ragone was promoted to passing game coordinator in 2020, Nagy asked him to take some one-on-one time with Patterson, according to The Athletic’s Dan Pompei, and help turn that athleticism that had been so confounding for so many teams into a running back. Then when Ragone got the job as Atlanta Falcons offensive coordinator in 2021 he brought Patterson with him.
A look at Patterson’s Pro Football Reference shows that the only years he has been listed as a running back are his two with the Falcons. He was their leading rusher in 2021 with 153 carries for 618 yards and six touchdowns. However, that didn’t mean his pass-catching days were behind him. In fact, 2021 was his best season doing what the Vikings wanted him to do when they drafted him in the first round in 2013. Patterson tied his career high in receptions with 52, but this time he averaged 10.7 yards per reception and hauled in five touchdowns — also a career-high.
Patterson is picking up this season right where he left off. In the Falcons’ nail-biting 27-26 season-opening loss to the New Orleans Saints, he had the best rushing day of his career, running the ball 22 times for 120 yards and a touchdown.
Most NFL players don’t get the opportunity to reinvent themselves six seasons into their careers. Fortunately for Patterson, as an athletic specimen, he stands out in a room full of them. His athletic ability is so special that after being declared a disappointment, and by some a bust, at 31 years old Patterson is now one of the more unique offensive weapons in the NFL.
It’s proof that if you’re capable of returning a kickoff 109 yards in an NFL game, hang around long enough and the game will evolve to a place where it will find the best role for you.