Devin Hester is the greatest return man of all time. I don’t think that’s a very controversial opinion. Sure, some people might disagree, but in general, I imagine most people will either agree or understand how I could think he is. Hester was named to both the NFL Hall of Fame’s All-2000's and 2010's teams as a return specialist. He is the all-time NFL leader in punt return touchdowns (14) and the all-time leader in combined return touchdowns with 19.
While Devin Hester is far from a surefire Hall of Famer, you’d be hard pressed to go through a small group of NFL fans without bumping into somebody who thinks Hester deserves a spot in Canton. Hester was never a great receiver, although he did record 757 yards and three touchdowns in 2009. His value to every team he ever played on lied almost entirely on his skill as a return specialist, and still his Hall of Fame credibility is never put into question.
I’m not saying that I question it, or that it should be put into question either. Hester was a demon as a returner. He struck fear into opposing special teams coaches because they knew that if they didn’t prepare for Hester, he’d get them fired. He didn’t even have to field a punt or kick in order to be dangerous. His fake punt return against the Packers is still one of my favorite NFL moments of all-time and Hester didn’t even do anything. I am saying, however, that if Devin Hester is going to get into Canton, or at the very least, be nominated for enshrinement, we might want to start putting some respect on Cordarrelle Patterson’s name.
A former first-round pick out of Tennessee, Patterson never lived up to his expectations as a receiver for the Vikings. Although, he did find a place in the NFL as a kick returner. Patterson led the NFL in kickoff return touchdowns his rookie season. He’s led the league, or been tied for the league lead, in the same category five times since. He’s led the league in kickoff return yards twice and has reached over 1000 kickoff return yards for the season three times. He’s 11th all-time in career kickoff return yards, yet has attempted 39 fewer kickoff returns than the next fewest in the top-ten (10th place: Leon Washington). To make a long story short, Patterson has been one of the best return men of this era, and was named alongside Hester to the NFL Hall of Fame All-2010's team as a kick returner.
Patterson never got into punt returning, and to be fair, that is where Hester truly shined as a specialist, but Patterson has been a much better kick returner than Hester ever was. In 295 career kick returns, Hester accrued 7333 yards and five touchdowns. Patterson has amassed 7450 return yards and eight touchdowns 253 career kick returns. He’s done more with less and his career isn’t over yet.
Obviously, Hester added a ton of value as a punt returner too. Patterson has just one career punt return. However, unlike Hester, Patterson has added decent value on offense as well. While he was never an incredible wide receiver, he still generated value as a rusher. When used as a gadget type player, Patterson was incredibly efficient, averaging 6.1 yards per carry before becoming full-time halfback for the Falcons in 2021. Is it any wonder that he became a much more effective player when he made the transition to the backfield, then?
This career rejuvenation for Patterson could be the last push he needs to get serious Canton talk. At 30 years old, Patterson’s best years are probably behind him, but he’s likely got some juice left in the tank. After all, Hester played until he was 34. Despite the four year age difference, Hester accumulated 14,455 career all-purpose yards compared to 11,339 for Patterson. Patterson has also reached the end zone 33 times altogether. Hester, just 37 times. In four years, and given how well he’s been used in Arthur Smith’s offense in Atlanta, there’s a serious chance that Patterson could surpass Hester in both all-purpose yards and touchdowns. Currently, Patterson has 753 touches for his career, giving him 15.06 all-purpose yards per touch. Hester recorded 901 career touches, putting him at just 16.04. Hester recorded just one extra all-purpose yard per touch than Patterson despite Patterson having a much heavier run workload during his time in the NFL.
The NFL began incorporating kickoff rule changes in 2011, two years before Patterson was drafted. Since 2011, NFL kickoff return rates (i.e.: kickoffs that are actually taken out by the returner) have dropped 62 percent. In an era where kickoff returns are just not viewed as highly as they once were, Patterson has still managed to carve out a role as a premiere return man. He’s earned four Pro Bowl nods and received All-Pro recognition four times (the only returner to ever amass four All-Pro honors) for his skill as a returner. To put that in perspective, Hester, who played in a much happier time for return men, also received Pro Bowl honors four times but was named an All-Pro just three times. Furthermore, Patterson is the only active player to have been named to more than one All-Pro team as a returner, kickoff or punt.
Patterson may not be as well-known as Hester was in his prime, and if name recognition has any say in NFL Hall of Fame credibility, Patterson likely doesn’t stand a chance. I doubt that’s the case, however, seeing as how numerous offensive linemen, who casual fans would likely struggle to put a face to, are named Hall of Fame finalists every year. He may not have the sheer number of return yards as Hester does, but Patterson has managed to find a balance between effectiveness on offense and effectiveness on special teams, which is something Hester could never quite do.
I like Hester. If I had a vote, I would likely put a check next to his name on my Hall of Fame ballot. With all this respect we’ve given Hester for his ability to return punts and kicks though, Patterson has seemingly been disrespected and overlooked so much so to the point where referring to him as just a solid football player, prior to 2021, drew many questionable glares. Given the current state NFL kickoffs find themselves in, it’s a marvel what Patterson has been able to do in his career. All I’m asking is we start giving similar props to Patterson that we’ve all been giving to Hester. Is that too much to ask for?