Krammer: As returns die, Vikings should let Cordarrelle Patterson run
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MINNEAPOLIS -- The NFL doesn't want Cordarrelle Patterson returning kicks, but the league had its cake and ate it, too, while watching the dynamic rookie turn should-be touchbacks into 100-plus yard touchdowns last season.
Patterson, 23, has become an anomaly in the modern NFL as a player who can change the game through rushing, receiving and returning, but the Vikings are tinkering with the idea of removing one, at least partially, to save him for the other two.
"We want our players to help us win football games anyway we can," coach Mike Zimmer said on Wednesday. "We want to get the ball in those guys' hands so you'll see Cordarrelle back there, yes."
But full-time returner? That's something the Vikings haven't committed to.
Through two preseason games, the Vikings have worked a pair of returners in Patterson's spot. Though it's no surprise Patterson is being held back in exhibitions, special teams coordinator Mike Priefer wasn't sure if he'd see his star returner waiting in the endzone on Saturday at Kansas City.
"I hope so," Priefer said. "That's up to, obviously, Coach Zimmer, but I hope so. We've talked about it a little bit and as we get closer to [Saturday] we'll talk about it some more but he took more reps this week as we've gone and excited about getting him back in there although the other guys, the young guys, have done a nice job for us."
Rookie running back Jerick McKinnon and backfield mate Joe Banyard have taken the seven kick returns across two exhibition games so far. Neither have disappointed as McKinnon averaged more than 22 yards per return on his five attempts, while Banyard averaged 29.5 yards on his pair of returns against the Arizona Cardinals.
Both pale in comparison to Patterson's 32.4 yards per return on 43 attempts in his rookie season, which also included a NFL-leading two returns for touchdowns (105, 109); he became the first rookie to do so since Devin Hester in 2006.
But Hester hardly played an integral role in the Chicago Bears offense or defense, which made it an easy decision to deem him the punt/kickoff return man.
The Vikings only have to look a couple years back at Percy Harvin, which is an approach they've discussed using with Patterson -- limiting his special teams duties to preserve his firepower on offense. However with Harvin's injuries, the Vikings ultimately scaled back his role on offense as well.
It's a difficult task to balance Patterson's workload, but this is a different case than Harvin, or even Adrian Peterson, who returned 16 kickoffs his rookie season before the team removed that duty in favor of more handoffs.
Limiting Harvin on returns in 2011 resulted in a then-career high of 32.5 yards per return on just 16 attempts. As good as Harvin was in Minnesota, he didn't consistently produce in his early years of 2009 (27.5 yards per return) and 2010 (23.3) like Patterson. And Harvin put up those numbers when kickoff returns weren't fielded with 109 yards to go for six.
For Patterson, it's a matter of his replacement value, physical ability (health) and having a weapon that very few NFL teams possess after the league moved the kickoff point from the 30- to the 35-yard line in 2011.
In 2010, before the rule change, only 17 percent of kickoffs resulted in touchbacks, per the Harvard Sports Analysis Collective. A year later, the percentage of touchbacks jumped to 43.5, which was a win for a league trying to curb injuries.
Because of fewer kick returns, the average NFL offense took the field at the 22-yard line after a kickoff last season.
Because of Patterson, the Vikings led the league with a starting field position at the 26-yard line (after kickoffs), more than a 1.5-yard increase over the second-place Kansas City Chiefs (24.2), per Football Outsiders.
Four yards above average per drive may not seem like a lot, but it pays dividends across a 16-game schedule. The home-run potential Patterson provides, combined with the Vikings' relative depth of offensive weapons in receiver Greg Jennings, tight end Kyle Rudolph and Peterson, should give the team enough reason to put Patterson out there for the three to five kickoff returns per game.
Patterson is expected to play a crucial role in Turner's offense, as opposed to his rookie year where he saw two-thirds of his 446 offensive snaps in the final seven games. Many question whether it's worth to risk injury for five returns when you can have him for 50 or more plays on offense during a game.
During the seven-game stretch in 2013 where Patterson averaged 42.5 snaps on offense, he was held out on kick returns for two games. Of the five games he returned kickoffs and played an integral role on offense, Patterson compiled 548 yards on 19 returns for a 29-yard average that still would've been good enough for third among all kick returners in the NFL last season.
The Vikings are trying to be proactive with a budding superstar, which is smart. But unless they can strike gold with another rookie returner in McKinnon, there should be little doubt that Patterson, who has played in all 28 games his college and NFL team have asked of him since 2012, can handle the few extra plays on his plate.
As Priefer has probably told the Vikings coaching staff: Don't overthink this, just give him the ball.
"I hope to not back him off at all," Priefer said. "That would be my plan but of course it's not just me. That's up to Coach Zimmer and how we use him on offense...To me it's the first play of the offensive series, that's the way I look at it."
Additional listening: On this week's Purple Podcast -- Andrew Krammer and Derek Wetmore discuss the three starting spots left open on the Minnesota Vikings defense after the second exhibition game against the Arizona Cardinals. Who will start alongside Harrison Smith? What did we learn about Matt Cassel and more: