A first-round pick by the Minnesota Vikings seven years ago, Patterson’s responsibilities -- for four different teams -- have included wide receiver, running back and return specialist, the latter of which earned him three Pro Bowl selections.
Patterson’s first season in Chicago followed a predicable script. The speedy veteran thrived on kickoff returns, for which he averaged 29.5 yards per touch, but as a receiver, he managed just 11 receptions for 83 yards and 103 rushing yards on 17 attempts.
An aggressive offseason review convinced Bears coach Matt Nagy that Patterson is better off in Chicago’s backfield in 2020. Patterson spent the first week of open training camp practices almost exclusively with the running backs, where he is easy to spot given that Patterson is 6-foot-2, 227 pounds and assigned jersey No. 84.
“Anytime my number’s called, I’m always excited,” Patterson said. “Just being out with David [Montgomery] and Tarik [Cohen], just working with those guys each and every day, it’s just fun, man. It’s different for me, being a receiver for my whole career, just going in the running back room. I’m just trying to pick those guys' brains. I tell them I’m a veteran guy, but I’m learning something new, so I’m just trying to learn from you guys.
“I’m just trying to get better running between the tackles, just running it period. All my career, I’ve been running it outside a lot, so that game’s natural to me. I’m just trying to learn to run it in the A and B gaps. It’s all new to me.”
The Bears are determined to reimagine their running game. Last year, Chicago ranked near the bottom of the league with a paltry 3.7 yards per rushing attempt. Nagy -- the 2018 NFL Coach of the Year -- faced an onslaught of criticism over the team’s lack of commitment to the ground game. Patterson’s sample size was small (17 carries), but it contained a 46-yard run versus the Denver Broncos in Week 2 and 16- and 11-yard bursts against the Kansas City Chiefs and Minnesota Vikings, respectively, to close out the regular season.
Expect to see Patterson in the backfield a lot in 2020 pic.twitter.com/3j5hisn— Cordarrelle Patterson (@CeeFlashPee84) Aug. 22, 2020
“We have a lot of different players in this offense who are all talented, and Cordarrelle is one of them,” Nagy said. “Really, with all these players, we want to make sure that we do a good job at using them and getting them touches, using them in other ways, as well. We're just kind of working through that and being able to get it on tape and see what we like and what we don't like."
Patterson’s high-water mark was 42 touches out of the backfield when he played for the New England Patriots in 2018. That year, Patterson averaged 5.4 yards per carry, mostly on jet sweeps to the outside.
“When we were evaluating him, we went back and watched all the touches he’s had at running back in his entire career,” Bears running backs coach Charles London said. “You see an explosive player. You see a big player. You see a guy who can outrun guys. You see a guy who's hard to tackle. I think a lot of the traits you see with him as a running back you see with him on kickoff return, as well. We’re pleased with where he’s at. A lot of it is new to him. He’s never been asked to do some of this stuff before."
But as a top-shelf return man who is used to having to accelerate quickly and hit holes with explosion, Patterson's might be well-suited to running back duties. His size gives him some wherewithal to withstand the contact between the tackles, but he will always be a threat on the outside. The key will be to learn the offense.
“I think it’s going to work because he wants it to work," London added. "He’s really excited about this. He knows how he can help the team in this spot. He’s worked hard in the offseason to learn the offense and to learn the intricacies of being a running back and what he has to do. He’s learning protections and doing everything the rest of the guys are doing. He’s excited about it. I’m excited to work with him about it.
"I just think as time goes on and he gets more and more comfortable, you’re going to see a more and more explosive player."