Cordarrelle Patterson, the league’s top kick returner, has a fairly straightforward rationale for wanting the NFL to stop messing with the play.
“Some players, they live off special teams,” said Patterson, the two-time All-Pro returner. “Some players only will play special teams their whole entire career in the NFL.”
The one-year trial of the touchback at the 25-yard line only increased their occurrence by two percent. However, the edge gained by teams with good kick return games was further minimized.
Touchbacks became more valuable, closing the average field position gap. So despite fielding the league’s best kick returner, the Vikings only had a 1.3-yard lead over the league’s average starting spot after a kickoff, according to Football Outsiders. That was down from a 2.7-yard lead the previous season. NFL owners will vote this offseason on whether or not to make the change permanent or consider other options.
When Devin Hester was tearing up fields in 2010, while kickers were still backed up to the 30-yard line, the Bears had a five-yard advantage over the league’s average starting field position after kickoffs. A year ago, the NFL leader’s edge dipped to three yards. Last year’s best average starting field position, the 27-yard line in New England, gained just two yards on league average after kickoffs.
“It feels like you’re messing with a lot of players’ money and worth,” Patterson said.
Patterson again found himself involved in the Vikings offense and embraced a larger role on special teams. Although his return chances fell to a career-low 25 with many kickers aiming away from and/or behind him. He still led the NFL in yards per return as the Vikings vowed to stay aggressive, but returned less than half of their kickoffs (48.5%), down from nearly two-thirds returned (63.4%) the previous season.
That meant seven fewer returns for Patterson as he caught many 109 yards away from a touchdown.
“Depends on how we’re feeling in the situation of the game,” Patterson said. “If you feel like you can make a play, or if we’re up 14 points or something, don’t take no risk. Just take a knee and we’ll take the ball at the 25.
“I don’t like taking knees. I want to go out and make a play, help the team any way I can.”
Next month, Patterson could test the free agent market, where some of the league’s previous top returners, like ex-Raven Jacoby Jones, signed for $3 million per year just a few years ago. Patterson is a better talent and one who could try to eclipse a deal like Tavon Austin’s in Los Angeles, where the receiver and punt returner picked up $17 million in guaranteed money last year on a four-year, $42 million extension.
In a previous version of the sport, Patterson might’ve been in line for more of a proportionate deal to Hester’s $15 million guaranteed, which Hester earned nearly a decade ago in 2008 with just 75 percent of the current salary cap. Instead, NFL owners will convene in late March, likely after Patterson has signed his new deal, to again vote on the future of the kickoff return.
“If they take out the stuff like kickoff return,” Patterson said, “some players aren’t going to be able to feed their family. Me personally, that’s how I feel.
“I feel like they’re trying to take the fun out of the game.”