With Cordarrelle Patterson’s NFL career at a low point, not even midnight winter air could chill one fan’s disdain.
Walking between Duluth watering holes, Patterson heard the tongue lashings and blocked them just as he does Twitter hounds. The player shouting back wasn’t the Vikings’ high-profile first-round pick but his friend from Detroit Lakes, Minn.
“When I’m out in public, people say stuff, but I just ignore it,” Patterson said. “I feel like Adam [Thielen], he’ll always have my back. That’s just what your boys do for you. Somebody acting stupid, your boy is going to help you out.”
Thielen, his left arm in a sling after shoulder surgery, came to Patterson’s defense against a jeering fan who may have just received an autograph, photo or handshake from either receiver. The two were in town as part of the Vikings’ Winterfest, a charitable endeavor in February. They were only weeks removed from a disappointing playoff loss to the Seahawks, in which Patterson didn’t play a single snap on offense.
Around that time is when teammates say they noticed a maturing professional in Patterson, the 25-year-old dynamic receiver who once again is contributing in the Vikings’ three-receiver offense. Now the soon-to-be free agent is trying to flip coveted snaps into a new contract and, potentially, become wanted in NFL circles once again.
Patterson is still the one in the receiver room keeping it light with a carefree smile, which has remained through a young, yet wild, roller coaster of a career.
“It’s actually impressive,” Thielen said, “because of how much crap he’s taken.”
‘Lit a fire’
This spring, Thielen’s cellphone turned into a catalogue of Patterson’s workouts.
Thielen watched from up close and afar as Patterson, a 6-foot-2, 220-pound athletic freak, worked on refining his footwork and routes with teammates, other NFL players and his private quarterbacks and receivers coach, Steve Calhoun, in California.
“He was constantly texting me, sending me videos of him busting his tail,” Thielen said.
That was weeks before the Vikings sent Patterson his final notice. The team had plans in motion to replace him with a split end in the upcoming draft. Days before selecting Laquon Treadwell, Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman officially declined Patterson’s fifth-year option, making this season his last under the rookie contract.
“Them not picking up his fifth-year option lit a fire in him,” cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said. “And it’s kind of good, man, for guys when things like that happen. You get hungry, and that’s what happened.”
Patterson admitted he needed to be humbled after a breakout 2013 rookie season, in which he was named an All-Pro and Pro Bowl kick returner. His seven offensive touchdowns came as a “gadget guy,” receivers coach George Stewart said, which didn’t fit former offensive coordinator Norv Turner’s downfield passing attack.
Precision wasn’t something Patterson had needed to be successful. Pure athletic ability got him to the NFL and allowed him to thrive immediately as a kick returner. He has already set Vikings franchise records and just became the only player in NFL history with four 100-yard touchdowns.
But Patterson “had to grow up, and he’s done that,” Stewart said, adding his knowledge of the route concepts and defensive coverages has evolved. The Vikings drafted him knowing he needed to be taught all the nuances of the position. That required patience with Patterson, who is now fourth on the team with 39 receptions, his most since the rookie campaign three years ago.
“I feel like this year, it’s been a wake-up call for me,” Patterson said. “Last couple years, it hasn’t gone how I wanted it to go and, you know, it’ll teach you some things. You gotta be more humble. Sometimes you get the big head when things are going your way.”
‘More of a team guy’
Charles Johnson, a seventh-round pick in the same 2013 draft, recalled looking at Patterson sideways upon arriving in Minnesota in September 2014.
“My first impression was like, ‘This guy. He thinks he’s this guy, he thinks he’s all this and that,’ ” Johnson said. “I was like, ‘All right, let me see how it goes.’ And like his whole mentality, his whole work ethic, everything has changed.
“When I first got here, he was just going through the motions. Now he’s locked in.”
Evidence is right on the field whenever Patterson lines up as a gunner on the Vikings’ punt coverage team. Aside from now playing 30 to 50 snaps per game on offense as well as returning kicks, Patterson is also an effective cover man for punter Jeff Locke.
“As a younger guy, I never covered punts in my whole life. I didn’t want to start now in the major leagues,” Patterson said. “I look back at it; I probably should’ve did it a long time ago.”
A younger Patterson would’ve avoided the dirty work, just as he dodged returner Dexter McCluster during the 2013 Pro Bowl when he was first put on a coverage team.
“I was so scared, every time I run down there I made sure I got blocked,” Patterson said. “I was scared I couldn’t make tackles, but that was me as a rookie. Now, I look back at it, if I am who I am today, I would’ve went down there and tried to lay the smack on him.”
Patterson’s first-ever tackle, he says, didn’t come until this September when he took down Panthers returner Ted Ginn. Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer has been critical of Patterson’s focus in the past but has praised him for doing more this season without the ball in his hands.
“He’s become more of a team guy,” Zimmer said. “I think guys figure out in this league it’s not about your draft status, it’s about the things you do on the field.”
Patterson’s “flash,” as his nickname reads across the back window of his red Camaro, remains.
Perhaps there is no better example than his game-day long socks that featured his own photo above each ankle during the Vikings’ win against the Cardinals, his 104-yard kickoff return for a touchdown being a reason why they won. Across two games last week, Patterson showed both his growth and how far he has yet to go as an NFL receiver.
After Cardinals safety Tony Jefferson was flagged for a big hit on receiver Stefon Diggs, the fiery Diggs was yanked away from charging back by a long right arm. It was Patterson, who only a year ago head-butted Packers kicker Mason Crosby.
Against the Lions, Patterson caught at least three passes for the eighth straight game. His explosive acceleration and cuts forced multiple Lions to miss on a 22-yard double reverse. But two steps forward were followed by one step too far back.
His focus waned momentarily when a critical Vikings third-down conversion was negated by an illegal-formation penalty because Patterson wasn’t up on the line of scrimmage. Quarterback Sam Bradford threw the game-losing interception on the next third-down attempt.
“He’s earned the opportunity,” Zimmer said of Patterson. “That’s the important thing. Guys earn these opportunities. Then what they do with it from there is really up to them.”