The first in a periodic series examining the roles of NFC North newcomers:
By all accounts, the Minnesota Vikings traded away a unique talent last month when they shipped Percy Harvin to the Seattle Seahawks. The Vikings were not, however, ready to abandon the offense they built around Harvin's open-field running ability during the first half of last season.
So they devised a two-pronged plan for replacing Harvin in the 2013 draft. Option A was to find a way to select West Virginia all-purpose man Tavon Austin. As the first round began last Thursday, according to general manager Rick Spielman, the Vikings were mulling trade-up possibilities from their positions at No. 23 and No. 25 overall.
The St. Louis Rams crushed Option A by moving to No. 8 overall and drafting Austin at a position the Vikings couldn't reasonably hope to reach. So the Vikings pivoted to Option B, which in their minds was the best alternative -- by a long shot -- for finding a receiver with Harvin's multi-positional skills.
Can Tennessee's Cordarrelle Patterson, whom the Vikings acquired with the No. 29 overall pick, be a playmaker as a receiver, from the backfield and as a returner? At 6-foot-2 and 216 pounds, Patterson has a body type closer to that of a conventional receiver. (Austin is 5-foot-8 and Harvin is 5-11). But after watching the way Tennessee used him last season, the Vikings are confident Patterson has a similarly unique skill set.
"We felt that besides Austin, he was the most explosive playmaker with the ball in his hand in the draft," Spielman said. He also said Patterson is "magic" as a returner and added: "We feel this guy can do just as much as Percy can as a returner."
Unless you watched Tennessee last season, you probably wouldn't have guessed that Patterson put up 308 rushing yards last season, some on the type of bubble screen passes/pitches the Vikings used last season with Harvin. The first chart shows that Austin was more successful in all areas, but the Vikings considered Patterson's production remarkable considering he did not arrive on campus after transferring from Hutchinson Community College until just before the start of summer practice.
"My strength is when the ball is in my hands," Patterson said. "Whether it be on a kick return, on an end around. I feel like when the ball is in my hands, I’m a special player. I’m still working on my route running, learning coverages and stuff."
Spielman said the Vikings have already discussed "having a specific game plan of how we'll be able to develop" Patterson. The obvious answer is to use him in a relatively simple schematic package that capitalizes on his open-field running ability, much as they did with Harvin. As you might recall, Harvin gained more than three-quarters of his receiving yards after the catch last season (528 of 677), according to ESPN Stats & Information.
That approach makes sense for a number of reasons, including the revelation that Patterson was a raw and only occasionally effective downfield receiver during his one season with the Volunteers. Tennessee quarterbacks completed only 51.7 percent of their passes targeting Patterson last season, including only nine of 31 attempts on passes that traveled 15 or more yards past the line of scrimmage. The chart provides further details and comparisons to the rest of his teammates.
Let's be clear. Patterson has the size and speed, having run his 40-yard dash at the scouting combine in 4.42 seconds, to be a good downfield receiver. (He also had the highest vertical leap of any receiver at the combine at 37 inches). But if he struggled in that area on a relative basis at the college level, it stands to reason that he won't elevate immediately against NFL defenses.
Consider this report from our friends at Scouts Inc., which is not that much different than Patterson's own assessment: "[E]xtremely raw as a receiver in terms of route-running and reading coverages on the fly. There are questions about how much of an offense he can absorb right away, and his hands have been inconsistent on tape. He can immediately make an impact as a return man, and if the Vikings can find creative ways to get him touches, Patterson can still make a difference as he develops as a receiver."
So if we had to guess at the Vikings' plan for Patterson, it would start as a kickoff returner and include the kind of passes, pitches, and tosses near the line of scrimmage that Harvin excelled at turning into big gainers. By the end of the season, perhaps Patterson would have developed beyond that. But this is a player whose expectations should be viewed on a long-term horizon.
For now, as the Vikings did with Harvin, the best thing to do is to put the ball in Patterson's hands and let him do his thing.