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Cordarrelle Patterson’s on pace for a unique career year

The veteran returner-turned-receiver-turned runner is working magic for this Falcons offense.

NFL: Atlanta Falcons at Miami Dolphins Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Kyle Pitts is capturing the imaginations of football fans all over the world, and for good reason. Matt Ryan is drawing more praise than he’s managed from outside this fanbase since his MVP days, and for good reason. The Falcons are suddenly a team everyone wants to talk about, and for the first time in a long time, that’s also for a good reason.

We love all of that—this team is a lot more fun to talk about when they’re doing well and doing exciting things—but I also don’t want to lose sight of what Cordarrelle Patterson is doing. It might be even rarer than a unicorn.

There’s no easy way I’ve found to slice this data, so I’m just going to make a big statement: Virtually nobody has switched from receiver to running back and had their best year at 30 or older in NFL history. There are obviously relatively running backs period who have had any kind of real success after 30—Ricky Williams had his best year at 32, Frank Gore and Adrian Peterson and Falcons legend Warrick Dunn chained together multiple quality years after 30, and there are perhaps a couple of dozen great backs who defied the odds from yesteryear—but Patterson is unlikely to join any 1,000 yards rushing clubs this season anyways.

Because of his small role on offense all these years and primarily working as a receiver for so long, Patterson’s role and success in 2021 is all but unprecedented. There are also a few successful wide receiver-to-running back conversions in NFL history, including former Packer and current Saint Ty Montgomery and ex-Falcon J.D. McKissic (who also got time at multiple positions in college), but virtually nobody who made the switch near age 30 and had success with it.

Yet Patterson is on pace to not just do unprecedented things but do them better than he has at any other point in his career, as his rookie marks of 627 combined yards and 7 combined touchdowns as a receiver and runner are not all that far away from his 529 combined yards and 6 combined touchdowns in 2021. That’s through just six games, mind you, and at his current pace Patterson is going to have eye-opening numbers by the end of this 17 game season.

How impressive are we talking? Patterson has been a relatively lightly used weapon through the air, but he’s still on track for for 77 receptions for 538 yards and nearly 12 touchdowns as a receiver. On the ground, he’s moving toward 156 attempts for 660 yards and another 5 or 6 touchdowns. Those are going to be tough numbers to get to if Mike Davis gets more involved again and Calvin Ridley gets uncorked, particularly through the air, but Patterson feels like a virtual lock for double digit touchdowns and over 1,000 combined yards. A year ago, he had just under 370 yards and a single touchdown on offense, and the Falcons went ahead and bet on him being a significant piece of their offense anyways.

That’s led to what sometimes seems like genuine wizardry. Patterson has magicked himself open like this:

Patterson has done remarkable things as a runner, showing an ability to run by defenders and power through them:

And along the way, he’s done something that hasn’t happened since the AFL and NFL merged.

The sledding will get tougher in the weeks ahead, but the remarkable thing is that we talked and talked about how the Falcons would need to maximize Kyle Pitts and Calvin Ridley to make up for the loss of Julio Jones, and Patterson barely rated a mention in that conversation. With Pitts breaking out in such spectacular fashion, Patterson still is no less important to the cause, and his ability to do so many things well has allowed this offense to hum both before and after the rest of the team found their footing. It stinks for Patterson and fans of remarkable breakouts that this is just happening now when the ability was very evidently always there, but better late than never.

Give Dave Ragone and Charles London credit for seeing Patterson’s untapped potential in Chicago, Arthur Smith for helping to turn him into such a weapon, and Terry Fontenot for one of the savviest signings of the entire offseason. Above all, though, give credit to Patterson for doing something that’s virtually unprecedented in NFL history, and don’t forget to appreciate what we’ve seen and what we’ll get to see the rest of the way.