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What will 2023 bring for Cordarrelle Patterson?

The versatile back is entering the final year of his contract, and his role will be worth watching.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

The Falcons haven’t exactly loaded up on weapons thus far this offseason, though Jonnu Smith, Mack Hollins, and Scotty Miller are now aboard. Even if they add via the draft, there still should be a prominent role for Cordarrelle Patterson, 2021’s breakout star and everyone’s favorite free agent recruiter. Patterson has been a critical piece of Arthur Smith’s offense each of the past two years as chaos has reigned around him, as he has handily outscored every other skill position player over that span.

The interesting question concerns his potential 2023 role. After looking at his 2021 production and predicting the team would elect to use him more as a receiving option than a runner in 2022, I was badly burnt by his actual production, which amounted to 31 fewer receptions, 426 fewer yards, and five fewer touchdowns in three fewer games. Despite a thoroughly mediocre passing attack, the Falcons went away from Patterson as a pass catcher in 2022, a major surprise given that their receiving corps was not exactly lighting the world on fire. He was still his usual self on the ground, however, frequently capping off big drives with touchdowns.

Let’s consider this pre-draft and re-visit it post-draft, once the Falcons have (possibly) added to running back and wide receiver.

As a runner

Patterson should head into the 2023 season as the second option on the depth chart unless the Falcons draft another player early. He was actually a more effective runner last year than in 2021, progress aided by the massive improvement of the offensive line, and remains a bruising runner who is particularly effective near the goal line. Last year, he ran the ball 30 times in the red zone for 134 yards and punched in eight touchdowns, and it’s unlikely the team will get away from using him in a role where he’s so effective.

With injuries cropping up last year, the Falcons simply might not want to put 150-plus carries on his plate in 2023, electing to mix him in for 5-7 touches per game near the goal line and whenever they think Patterson should be toting the rock. That might keep him fresh later into the season and maximize his per-touch effectiveness, while letting Tyler Allgeier and a rookie and/or Caleb Huntley soak up the majority of carries.

There’s especially true when you consider the issue of waning late-season effectiveness. In 2022, Patterson averaged nearly five yards a carry from September to November and scored five times, but that averaged sagged to just over four yards in December and January. In 2021, he averaged close to 4.5 per carry in the first three months and under four yards per carry in December and January. Patterson still scores at a good clip regardless of the time of the year, but he does his best work in the open field and with volume touches early on.

Ideally, then, the Falcons are probably relying on him a little less on the ground after he picked up 153 carries in 2021 and 144 last year, settling in under 100 rushes and picking their spots. If Atlanta doesn’t elect to add another back via the draft—and I view that outcome as unlikely—perhaps Patterson remains the second option on the ground in the early going and Huntley takes on more work later in the year once he’s hopefully recovered. If the Falcons draft a back, though, it’ll be down to a handful of high-leverage carries for Patterson each game.

As a receiver

If, as I suspect, the Falcons are inclined to use him a little less as a runner, they should make up for that by utilizing him more often as a receiver. The Falcons have added a potential WR2 candidate in Mack Hollins and a useful reserve/potential part-time slot receiver in Scotty Miller to go with Jonnu Smith, and Kyle Pitts and Drake London will hopefully be borderline elite options for this passing game. That should represent plenty of targets to go around for a team that will still be run-first, but there’s still significant value for a former wide receiver who can run over defenders in the open field and still has the wicked speed to turn a small gain into a big problem.

While I liked what Tyler Allgeier brought to the table as a pass catching option at times in 2022, it’s fairly obvious that Patterson is the better receiving back for Atlanta. In 2021 with Matt Ryan, Patterson reeled in 52 catches for 548 yards and five touchdowns, becoming a favored short yardage option for his ability to turn targets three yards away from the line of scrimmage into first downs. He averaged a sterling 7.4 yards after contact that year through the air, proving to be a minor nightmare in the open field, and this offense values and should value a player who can fight through contact like that.

The most straightforward evidence might be this, though: Patterson was targeted 16 times in nine games with Marcus Mariota under center. With Desmond Ridder at quarterback, he was targeted 15 times in just four games, pointing to a quarterback who will look his way more often. I’d expect his two targets per game average to expand to 3-5 in 2023, and that in turn should have a dramatic effect on his production through the air.

As a returner

He’ll still have a role, but it’ll likely be an intermittent one. Patterson got the chance to return nine kicks in 2022, which sliced in half his 2021 number, which in turn sliced in half his 2020 number with the Bears. He housed one of those kicks to set an NFL record, which was fantastic, but the Falcons are likely to continue to roll out Avery Williams as both their primary kick returner and punt returner. Patterson is a legend and teams still fear him on kick returns while Williams is unquestionably more deadly on punt returns, so a split will both keep teams on their toes and keep Patterson from carrying a heavier workload than the team would prefer.

My prediction—I’m doing it again!—is that Patterson will be much more involved through the air with Desmond Ridder under center and the team seemingly not all that concerned about picking up more high-upside pass catching options. Last year Patterson had just over 160 touches after having over 200 the year before, and I think he’ll wind up somewhere in that ballpark again in 2023, with more catches than last year and fewer carries.

The draft will give us more clues as to where Patterson stands on the depth chart at running back and how many players might be in front of him target-wise in the passing game, but even heading into his age-32 season, he remains a versatile and dangerous weapon. The Falcons will have to figure out how to maximize his effectiveness, but there’s little question that this is a better offense when Patterson is cooking.