In 2021, the Atlanta Falcons’ leading rusher wasn’t really a running back. It was the versatile Cordarrelle Patterson, a guy who primarily played wide receiver and kick returner before being thrust into the starting running back role in his first year in Atlanta.
Despite Patterson’s breakout 2021 season primarily carrying the ball, ESPN’s Michael Rothstein reported he could be playing more snaps as a wide receiver in 2022. Given his abilities as both a runner and a pass-catcher, what is the best way for the Falcons to maximize Patterson’s production next season?
Though the nine-year NFL veteran is listed as a wide receiver on his Pro Football Reference page, Patterson has never had a dominant season as just a wide receiver. There was no doubt he was one of the league’s best kick and punt returners with four first-team All-Pro nods, four Pro Bowl nominations and two second-team All-Pro honors as a returner. Before he came to Atlanta though, most teams struggled to find a way to fit him into their offenses.
For the first eight years of Patterson’s career, he had never surpassed even 500 receiving yards and had only amassed 167 rushing attempts for just over 1,000 yards and eight touchdowns. The Bears, Patterson’s team in 2019 and 2020, seemed to start to figure out how to use the utilityman in 2020, giving him an at-the-time career-high 64 carries in 16 games.
Atlanta took that concept and—no pun intended—ran with it.
After about four weeks of actual running back Mike Davis leading the rushing attack with limited success, the Falcons pushed Patterson into the lead back role. He averaged 10.5 rushes per game and just under four yards per attempt for the final 14 weeks of the season.
Even though Patterson was getting fewer targets and catches as a receiver, he was still producing in the passing game. He finished the 2021 season with a career-high 548 receiving yards and five receiving touchdowns.
Overall, Patterson thrived as a hybrid player. The 1,166 scrimmage yards he tallied between his rushing and receiving production was a career high, and he set another career high in total touchdowns with 11. Patterson’s special teams contribution diminished as a result of his extra snaps on offense but the production he had as a running back and receiver made that side of his game less crucial.
With Rothstein’s latest report, it’s fair to wonder how changing Patterson’s role in the Falcons’ offense will affect him and the team as a whole.
On one hand, Atlanta truly needs all the receiver help it can get for newcomer quarterback Marcus Mariota. Tight end Kyle Pitts was great in his rookie season and wide receiver Drake London is another nice addition this offseason. Behind those two, the depth chart gets much less exciting.
Wide receiver Calvin Ridley wasn’t around for most of the 2021 and was just suspended until at least the end of the 2022 season for betting on games last year. That leaves Olamide Zaccheaus and Auden Tate rounding out the Falcons’ starting receiver trio with London.
Zaccheaus had a career year in 2021 with… 406 receiving yards. Tate has a history of injuries that have kept him off the field for almost as many games as he’s played. Damiere Byrd and KhaDarel Hodge give Atlanta a little more depth at receiver but none of the players set to play receiver for the Falcons this year inspire confidence in their passing game.
Rushing to move Patterson back out to his original position may not be a good idea though, either. He struggled to be productive when he was only lining up out wide and primarily catching passes. His real contributions for the team only really began when he became their primary running back.
Still, Atlanta seems to be moving towards more of a committee approach to their backfield. That could mean Patterson gets more snaps as a true receiver, as a result. The Falcons signed veteran running back Damien Williams earlier this offseason and added BYU running back Tyler Allgeier in the draft.
Allgeier’s relative youth—he’s 22, while Patterson and Williams are over 30—and physicality could mean he takes charge on early downs and in short-yardage situations. Williams is a capable third-down back in pass pro and as a receiver. Those factors together should keep Patterson fresh, which is especially important as the oldest running back of the three.
The best thing the Falcons can do is keep Patterson in a running back role as much as they can. He’s at his best when he’s able to show off his versatility as a rusher and pass-catcher, so limiting him to just one role wouldn’t help him or the team.
Instead, he may just see a bit of a drop in carries in order to keep him fresh out of the backfield. The snaps he doesn’t get at running back he’ll tack on as a wide receiver.
After all, Rothstein only said Patterson could get more snaps at wide receiver. That could mean as little as a few more snaps at wideout rather than as a back. It’s unlikely that his overall role as a hybrid player in the offense will see a major change.
If the Falcons want to maximize Patterson’s contributions to the team for a second straight year, they should stick to their 2021 model. If London busts and other receivers can’t pick up the slack, Atlanta might have to change their plan. For now, limiting Patterson to primarily pass-catching duties would simply not be the right move.