It’s a shame that Cordarrelle Patterson hasn’t been properly used on offense throughout his nine-year career. Rather, it looks like a shame now, because the former wide receiver showed up in Atlanta this season and has become a fantasy superstar at running back in his age-30 season.
The Falcons’ new best player—yeah, I said it—has long been an elite gadget playmaker and kick-return specialist. Patterson’s career average of 29.6 yards per kick return ranks tied for second in league history, and his eight kick-return touchdowns is tied for first. He has the elusiveness of a ping-pong ball bouncing away from a middle-aged dad, and he’s always been capable of busting out an electrifying, highlight-worthy play or two every season.
But until now, he’s never been a reliable fantasy option. Before Matt Nagy and the Bears had Patterson switch positions in 2020, he was a seldom-used receiver who never had more than 80 targets or 500 receiving yards in a season. In fantasy, his career season-high 9.4 PPR points per game came during his rookie year with Minnesota in 2013, and over the past three seasons, he’s averaged 4.3 points per contest.
To say that no one expected the former first-rounder to break out this late in his career is an understatement, yet suddenly Patterson looks like a potential fantasy football league winner. Through four weeks in 2021, Patterson has recorded 354 yards and five touchdowns, including 18 receptions. He ranks as the PPR RB3 thanks to an incredibly efficient 0.86 fantasy points per snap, which leads all flex-eligible players by an enormous margin. He also ranks second among running backs in PFF’s receiving grade. Undrafted in an overwhelming majority of PPR leagues, the journeyman return specialist is on pace for one of the best fantasy seasons by a running back 30 or older in league history. Just one question remains: Can he keep this up?
Skeptics will point out that Patterson isn’t even leading the Atlanta backfield in snaps, as Mike Davis holds a 188-to-97 edge, including a majority of the team’s red zone rushes. Patterson is also PFF’s biggest overachiever (by far) in expected fantasy points, and he’s never sustained this level of production or usage for a full season despite occasional flashes in the past.
Historical precedent may also be working against Patterson. Just four other running backs over the age of 30 have started a season with at least Patterson’s 83.4 points through four weeks: Curtis Martin, Priest Holmes, Fred Jackson, and Lamar Smith. That group did so behind a combined average of 26 touches per game, but Patterson is averaging just over 11 per game, which ranks outside the top 30 at his position this season.
That said, there is a path toward significant rest-of-season fantasy value for the Falcons running back. His 11.3 touches per game equates to about 181 across a typical 16-game schedule, which puts him in 2018 James White territory, when the Patriots receiving back finished the year as the PPR RB7. Danny Woodhead, Tarik Cohen, and Duke Johnson have turned similar usage into top-12 fantasy campaigns over the past six seasons, and before them Darren Sproles logged consecutive top-12 fantasy finishes in 2011 and 2012 despite averaging just 148 touches across those two seasons.
OK, so Patterson has a lot more in common with that second, less illustrious, group of names than the first, but the fact remains: He could be having a legitimate PPR breakout.
The key counting stats for any low-usage rusher in PPR formats are touchdowns and receptions. Patterson is due for scoring regression after a three-touchdown performance in Week 4, but his 4.5 receptions and 6.8 carries per game are right in line with White and Co., who as a group averaged about five receptions and 5.5 carries per game despite none of them being a full-time starter. If and when Patterson does see his touchdown efficiency regress to the mean (1.25 per game is hardly sustainable), it may not adjust as drastically as some expect. Under new head coach Arthur Smith, the Falcons clearly have a plan to get Patterson involved in the red zone. The team has the league’s third-highest red zone passing rate, and has consistently targeted Patterson, who ranks fourth among running backs in red zone targets, and first with a 100 percent catch rate. For the season, he’s touching the ball on 46.4 percent of his offensive snaps.
Even if the Falcons move toward a three-pronged hot-hand committee approach with Wayne Gallman II potentially entering the rotation, Patterson is likely to maintain his hybrid running back–receiver role for an Atlanta offense that needs playmakers in the worst way after the team traded franchise cornerstone Julio Jones to Tennessee this offseason. Russell Gage Jr.—thought to be the Falcons’ WR2 coming into the season—hasn’t played since Week 2 because of an ankle injury and hasn’t impressed when he’s seen the field. Kyle Pitts, considered by many to be the best tight end prospect ever, has struggled despite running more routes than Travis Kelce and George Kittle this season. Davis, last year’s PPR RB12 while filling in for Christian McCaffrey, lacks burst and isn’t breaking tackles anywhere close to his 2020 rate. Outside of Calvin Ridley (who is looking more like a WR2 than the star he was while playing alongside Jones), Patterson is the go-to guy for Atlanta, and his defined role doesn’t appear to be going anywhere. Look at how consistent Patterson’s usage has been compared to other notable members of the Atlanta offense:
Now let’s take a look at Patterson’s highlights from Sunday (a.k.a. pretty much any clip in which he has the ball in his hands).
Patterson’s first of three touchdown catches against Washington was Atlanta’s longest play of the season:
He evaded four would-be tacklers on his second touchdown of the game:
And for his third magic trick, all he did was Moss starting cornerback Kendall Fuller:
Patterson is the guy Smith goes to for a spark (Patterson’s nickname is literally “Flash”)—he’s the straw that stirs the Gatorade and the lightning in that same Gatorade bottle. The fans know it, and the team knows it.
“The impact he’s made through four weeks has been awesome,” Matt Ryan said on Monday. “He’s a throwback. He’s a guy that does everything. He’s playing special teams, covering kicks, running the football for us, catching the ball out of the backfield, lining up outside running routes. … He’s been a big part of our ability to move the ball and score points.”
The Falcons face a moribund Jets team in Week 5, and will come out of their Week 6 bye with a slate of potentially high-scoring games against the Panthers, Saints, and Cowboys, which means Patterson could continue seeing ample receiving opportunity.
Concerns over snap rate and scoring regression are still legitimate, but Patterson has proved capable of making the most out of his opportunities and has earned more playing time moving forward.
“Whenever they call you, you just have to go out there and make a play,” Patterson said after Atlanta’s loss on Sunday. “They did a good job calling my number.”
Patterson is on track to continue having one of the better PPR seasons by a part-time running back in the past decade, and should at least offer solid flex value in most PPR leagues. But, sure, he probably won’t finish the season as the PPR RB3. That means that for managers who need help elsewhere on their rosters, there may not be a better time to sell high on the slash back. For everyone else who struck the kind of fantasy gold we rarely see, just enjoy the ride.