At the very least, Cordarrelle Patterson looks like a solution to the Bears’ league-worst kickoff return unit from a year ago. But that’s not how Matt Nagy is viewing the speedy former first-round pick who signed a two-year deal earlier this month.
“If we were bringing him here just to return kicks … I mean, I'd be lying to you,” Nagy said last week at the NFL Annual Meeting in Phoenix. “He's going to play with the offense and he's going to have a role. From now until Week 1 we've got to figure out, how do we maximize what he does best? I don't know that yet but when I see him get in here and we talk to him and see what he can do, then we as an offensive staff are going to find some good stuff for him.”
The Bears aren’t asking Patterson to be a No. 1, 2 or 3 receiver, roles firmly in the grasp of Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel and Anthony Miller. Tight end Trey Burton and running back Tarik Cohen should be locks to get more targets and/or touches than him. But as a versatile weapon who can do a few different things within the offense, Nagy likes where Patterson can fit.
The Bears are Patterson’s fourth team in seven years, though, and that kind of frequent movement rarely is found in good, top-tier players. Patterson only played 22 percent of the New England Patriots’ offensive snaps in his 15 games last year, though he did set a career high in touches (63). The challenge for Nagy will be to not overload Patterson, though as long as guys like Cohen and Burton and Robinson stay healthy, that shouldn’t be much of a problem.
“When Ryan (Pace) and I were watching tape and the other guys in our room were watching tape on him, we saw a role for him,” Nagy said. “You see what he did in New England with the jet sweeps, the arounds, the screens, and I think that that’s a good fit for him. But for me it’s kind of like a kid in a candy store. You get to kind of pick which candy you like best, put it together and figure out what he does best.”
Consider the signing of Patterson as another marker of the strong collaboration between Nagy and Pace when it comes to roster additions, then. That relationship was the first thing Pace pointed to when he discussed Patterson last week at the Arizona Biltmore, with the coach and general manager not only targeting the player, but targeting how he can be deployed in a number of different ways.
“He's kind of a Swiss army knife,” Pace said. “He's a very versatile player. But to maximize his talent, you have to be using him in a versatile manner, so not just on offense but on special teams and everything that we do. So there was a ton of discussion going into how are we going to use this guy, what's his play time going to look like, are we going to maximize his skill set. We spent a ton of time on that. I know we were both excited at the end of it with a vision of how he'll be used.”
Patterson, too, is a good representation of the shift in roster building the Bears have undergone in the last 12 months. A year ago, they were able to pick off some of the better free agents available — Robinson, Gabriel, Burton, etc. — while adding premiums talent through the draft like Miller and Roquan Smith (“In a lot of ways that’s sometimes easier,” Pace said).
For the Bears in free agency earlier this month, and next month in the draft, the shift to complementary pieces was out of necessity. Patterson is one of those guys, someone the Bears envision fitting in a role on a team that’s already established itself as a legitimate Super Bowl contender.
“You just get the ball in his hands,” Pace said, “and he's fun to watch.”