Pelissero: Vikings' education of Cordarrelle Patterson begins now
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Nobody doubts what can happen once Cordarrelle Patterson gets the ball.
It's all on tape from his lone season at the University of Tennessee: the size, the speed, the elusiveness, the explosion when he changes directions, the refusal to ever give up on a play.
"They have a tough time getting him on the ground," Minnesota Vikings offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave said last week. "Whether they tossed it to him, threw it to him or he was returning kicks, he said it himself -- he's special with the ball in his hands."
Beginning on Friday morning, when Patterson and the rest of the Vikings' draft class takes the practice field for the first time at rookie camp, Musgrave's challenge begins.
How exactly will the Vikings integrate a rare physical talent who may be further behind mentally than any other receiver after just one year of Division I football?
"It's going to take time. It's going to take a patient coach. There's going to be a lot of teaching," said an AFC personnel executive who studied Patterson closely before the draft.
"There's going to be a lot of walkthroughs. He's going to need to see it and then physically do it. It's going to take repetition and reinforcement in the classroom. He's going to need what we would call 'the full process.'"
That means stripping down to the basics with Patterson, a 22-year-old Rock Hill, S.C., native who didn't even play football in 2009 while spending a prep year at North Carolina Tech Christian Academy.
He enrolled the following fall at Hutchinson Community College in Kansas, twice earning juco all-America honors before transferring to Tennessee, where he spent all of five months on campus.
Patterson was productive for the Volunteers -- 46 catches for 778 yards, 25 rushes for 308 yards, 10 total touchdowns, including two on returns -- in a role heavy on opportunities that got him the ball easily and let him focus on making people miss.
But there were concerns raised throughout the pre-draft process about Patterson's maturity and capacity for picking up the nuances of an NFL offense, thanks to his relative inexperience, a demeanor in interviews that led one team to label him "a weird dude" and a reported score of 11 on the 50-question Wonderlic intelligence test.
"He's a guy you want on the team because he's fun-loving, but at the same time, he's got no football IQ," said an NFC personnel man who also studied Patterson closely before the draft.
"It was kind of street ball for him at Tennessee. He doesn't have the ability to understand football, understand how to run routes. But he's a really, really, really cool talent because he can do it all."
The Vikings spent substantial time vetting Patterson the past few months, beginning with an introductory meeting at the NFL scouting combine. Musgrave and receivers coach George Stewart attended Tennessee's pro day, and Patterson visited Winter Park for a day and a half last month as part of the annual "Top 30" event.
They felt comfortable enough with the full picture to put Patterson in the second tier on their draft board, grading him along with West Virginia's Tavon Austin as the two most explosive playmakers at receiver. And when New England offered to move out of the No. 29 overall pick, the Vikings packaged four selections to get back into the first round and snag him.
"If a player may be a little behind mentally, it's our job to figure out the best way he learns and it's our job to put a plan in place on how he's going to do that," Spielman said.
"The other thing that's very encouraging that we were very excited about was we felt that, after spending time with (Patterson), the work ethic is there, because if the kid is willing to work at it, then you have a lot better chance of having success."
Spielman made the call to Patterson from the draft room. Then, he handed the phone to Stewart, who provided a quick reminder: "Like I told you, I expect you to be a pro when you get in here. So, let's handle our 'biz' and let's be ready to roll."
It's probably no accident Patterson was assigned the locker next to veteran Greg Jennings, who ranks among the NFL's most consistent technicians at the receiver position.
In a conference call shortly after the pick, Patterson admitted he's "still working on my route running, learning coverages and stuff" and reiterated that in a media session the next day, saying his year at Tennessee was the first time he couldn't rely solely on his physical talent.
"My biggest challenge will be that I will have to come in and work hard every day," Patterson said. "The first thing I will have to do is get into that playbook and start learning the different coverages and hook up with the quarterback and a couple of receivers and get ready to work."
In reality, though, Patterson's immediate impact figures to come in the return game and with manufactured touches on offense -- not unlike how Percy Harvin was used in recent years.
"We'll have to wait and see," Musgrave said. "But (Patterson) definitely has a uniqueness with the ball in his hands. He can make people miss and get all the yards that are there and even more that go beyond the chalk on the chalkboard."
Spielman made perhaps the boldest statement of draft weekend by declaring Patterson can do "just as much or more than Percy (Harvin) can as a returner" -- to which the NFC personnel man replied, "But only after you tell him where to line up."
The AFC personnel executive also made an unprompted Harvin comparison when asked about Patterson, though pointing out the obvious difference in size. Patterson is built like an outside receiver at 6-foot-2 and 216 pounds, while Harvin looks like a slot man at 5-11, 184.
Harvin, 24, never did become a detailed route-runner in his four seasons with the Vikings before March's trade to Seattle. But he nonetheless amassed nearly 4,000 combined rushing and receiving yards and 24 touchdowns, plus five more scores on kick returns.
"What you have is the opportunity to get a guy with great physical potential who's raw, who has a lot of physical upside, who, if you're not counting on right away to be an impact, 65- to 70-play starting wide receiver, I think that's the ideal situation so that you can bring him along and develop his route skill," the AFC executive said.
"But in the meantime, you've got a guy who's an explosive athlete who potentially can role-play, who can learn on the job, develop on the job, be your starting returner and be a contributing player ... who in time has a very high ceiling and the potential to grow into a very good player if everything goes right in his development."
The responsibility for that falls on Musgrave and Stewart, who know well how hard it is to get production out of any rookie receiver. The strongest point on Stewart's resume is his work bringing along a young Terrell Owens in San Francisco.
"Everybody gets drafted in spite of something," Musgrave said. "He'll want to improve his route-running. But that's something that we feel like, as coaches, we can help him do. The talent is there. He has terrific size and amazing speed. Those are two things you can't coach."
The responsibility also falls on Patterson, whose constant smile and occasional bravado -- "When I get the ball in my hands," he said at his media conference, "I feel like I'm so special with it" -- won't win him friends in the locker room if he can't figure out where he's supposed to be.
The education of Cordarrelle Patterson begins in earnest on Friday.
"I feel pretty confident in Bill Musgrave and the offensive staff," Spielman said. "They'll find a few ways to make sure he knows what he's doing on a few things to get the ball in his hands."