When the New England Patriots acquired Cordarrelle Patterson from the Oakland Raiders via trade, they not only received an athletically intriguing wide receiver but also a top-notch kickoff returner: Over the course of his five seasons in the NFL, Patterson was voted first-team All-Pro at the position twice while running back five kickoffs for touchdowns and amassing a runback average of 30.2 yards.
Safe to say, he feels comfortable when a kick sails his way. The question is if the Patriots could also opt to use this confidence and production elsewhere, namely when it comes to returning punts. After all, the team will need a new punt returner after Danny Amendola left to join the Miami Dolphins in free agency. With no clear in-house replacement in sight, could Patterson be the guy to take over?
From an athletic standpoint, yes. The 27-year old brings outstanding speed and lateral movement skills to the table and has displayed great vision throughout his career as a kickreturner – something Patriots head coach Bill Belichick acknowledged when Patterson was still with the Minnesota Vikings, the team that drafted him in the first round back in 2013 (with a pick originally owned by New England).
“He’s got good vision and he hits seams,” Belichick said about Patterson. “But even there are a lot of times where guys get a shot at him and they just can’t tackle him or he runs through tackles. He’s got breakaway speed.” The breakaway speed was on display on dozens of his 156 career kickoff returns. However, it was not when it comes to running back punts: Patterson touched the football only twice on punts over the course of his NFL career.
In 2016, the former first rounder caught one punt fairly and later that year ran another one back for nine yards after the football was lateraled to him. During his other 79 career games, Patterson did not field or run back a punt in any capacity. This wasn't new for him, though as he hardly every returned punts over his collegiate career as well: During his three seasons in college, Patterson returned a grand total of four punts.
When he played for Hutchinson Community College in 2011 and 2012, he was used as a kickoff returner, running back and pass receiver but never asked to field punts. This change shifted slightly during his lone season at Tennessee: Patterson also worked as a part-time punt returner and ran back four kicks for a total of 101 yards – among them an 81-yard touchdown return.
So while his athletic abilities would certainly make Patterson qualified to be used as the top punt returner in New England, his past experience tells a different story. What will it therefore be? A look at the Patriots' returnmen history under Bill Belichick might give us a clue.
Through the 18 seasons under Belichick, the Patriots not once had the same leading kickoff returner and punt returner. Prior to the 2011 rule changes that moved the spot for kickoffs up to the 35-yard line, New England's primary punt returner ran back kicks every now and then – and vice versa – but there was a clear differentiation between the two roles. Kevin Faulk in 2006 was the closest “all-around returner” the Patriots had: He led the team with 31 kickoff returns and also fielded 17 punts.
Between the rule changes in 2011 and those in 2016 that moved the touchback to the 25-yard line (from the 20), New England operated under the same basic principle: There was one feature punt returner and one feature kickoff returner. The closest the two roles came to unification was through Danny Amendola in 2014: The veteran ran back 20 kickoffs and also returned 16 punts.
Following 2016's alterations to the kickoff rules, the Patriots – for the first time under Bill Belichick – had a leading kickoff returner (Cyrus Jones) that ran back more punts (11) than actual kickoffs (8). However, last year, the roles were clearly divided again: Amendola fielded 27 punts compared to one kickoff return, while Dion Lewis returned 23 kicks but was never used as a punt returner.
What does this mean for Cordarrelle Patterson? Given his lack of experience and the Patriots' past usage of kickoff and punt returners, it appears likely that the team will not use him as the featured player in both roles. While it would not be a surprise to see the All-Pro kickoff returnman also field a punt every now and then, New England using another punt returner will likely be the way the team decides to go.