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Saints free agency targets: Cordarrelle Patterson is the kick returner New Orleans needs

The Saints haven’t had a game-changing presence returning kickoffs since Michael “Beer Man” Lewis blazed a Saints Hall of Fame-worthy career. Two-time All-Pro kick returner Cordarrelle Patterson fits the bill.

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - Minnesota Vikings wideout Cordarrelle Patterson (84) celebrates a touchdown during the fourth quarter against the Houston Texans at US Bank Stadium.
MINNEAPOLIS, MN - Minnesota Vikings wideout Cordarrelle Patterson (84) celebrates a touchdown during the fourth quarter against the Houston Texans at US Bank Stadium.
Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

The New Orleans Saints fielded the NFL’s best wide receiver corps in 2016, with Michael Thomas, Brandin Cooks, and Willie Snead each catching 70+ targets. Thomas and Snead each caught more than 69% of their targeted passes, while Cooks and Thomas each broke the 1100-yards receiving mark. All three receivers played this year at 23-years old, though Snead turned 24 in October.

So why in the world am I pushing for the Saints to pursue Cordarrelle Patterson?

To be blunt, I don’t trust anyone on the Saints’ roster to field kickoffs. Marcus Murphy and Tommylee Lewis have had fun moments, but both struggled with ball security. Some fans have suggested Daniel Lasco could do it, but that’s not his role on special teams; Lasco’s job is setting up running lanes for the returner and running down opposing ball-carriers, and he’s very good at it.

Four different players returned kicks for the Saints in 2016: Murphy, Lewis, Travaris Cadet, and Tim Hightower. They averaged a combined 16.5-yards per return, and the Saints ranked 24th in the NFL in average starting position on offense (per Football Outsiders).

Compare that to Patterson, who was Minnesota’s lead returner with 25 kickoffs fielded last year (no other player logged more than two kickoff returns). Patterson averaged an NFL-leading 31.7-yards per return, and Minnesota ranked fourth leaguewide in average offensive starting position. The next-best returner was the Cincinnati BengalsAlex Erickson, who averaged 27.9-yards per return on four more attempts than Patterson.

It’s disappointing that Patterson doesn’t also return punts, but that’s hardly new for the Saints. Only Lewis and Murphy fielded both punts and kickoffs last year, and frankly we wouldn’t be discussing this if they had done well at it. It’s a common theme leaguewide: only Erickson, the Seattle Seahwks’ Tyler Lockett, the New York GiantsDwayne Harris, and the Tennessee TitansMarc Mariani ranked in the top 10 in kickoff and punt returns (per Pro Football Reference).

But don’t take this to mean that Patterson is a one-dimensional player. He’s got terrific size and speed (he ran a 4.42-second 40-yard dash at 6-foot-2, 216-pounds at the 2013 Scouting Combine) and is a dynamic receiving threat downfield and on sweeps around the edge. Unfortunately, Patterson’s skills were squandered during his first few years in Norv Turner’s big play-averse offense, and Sam Bradford was notorious for checking down last year.

He’s even expressed a willingness to play snaps as a traditional tailback, like Green Bay Packers breakout weapon Ty Montgomery. Creative offensive minds like head coach Sean Payton and offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael could work wonders with Patterson, who has already picked up 333 yards and four touchdowns on just 31 carries in his career.

On top of that, Patterson will turn 26-years old on March 17th. He’s got many years of NFL action ahead of him and could really turn things around for the Saints on special teams while bringing new elements to the offense. Brandin Cooks could be freed from flushing out defenders on post routes all day, which may ease Cooks’ vague ire of his role.

Of course the biggest issue is price. Patterson should expect something in the neighborhood of the contract the Los Angeles Chargers signed with Travis Benjamin last year, which went for four years and $24-million, but just $13-million guaranteed. It’s understandable if you balk at that, because the Saints already have a decent fourth receiver in Brandon Coleman. Coleman quietly caught 68-percent of his targets last year for 10.8 yards-per-catch and three clutch touchdowns, and he is a restricted free agent who will probably return on a low one-year tender. There’s a strong case for leaving the position as-is.

But I much prefer the idea of setting Drew Brees up with a group of young weapons on offense who can catch anything thrown their way. Picking up Brandin Cooks’ fifth year option, negotiating a long-term contract with Willie Snead, and adding Patterson this spring while Michael Thomas is in the midst of his rookie contract would be huge, not just for Brees but for whichever quarterback succeeds him. You couldn’t make a better situation for a new signal-caller to land in than among this collection of receivers.