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Opinion: With Falcons, Cordarrelle Patterson has unlocked his ability as one of NFL's top do-everything talents

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FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – Sometimes, it can be a bit tricky getting a read on exactly what Cordarrelle Patterson has up his sleeve.

“Today, I’m a running back,” Patterson declared after a recent Atlanta Falcons practice.

Tough to argue when considering he is his team’s leading rusher.

Then again, how many other running backs (zero) wear No. 84, even in this new age of untraditional uniform numbers for NFL players.

“I’m a running back,” he insisted. “That’s my position. That’s where they have me on the depth chart. Whenever my number is called for me to play receiver, I’ll just go out and do it.”

If Patterson, with 39 receptions, had one more catch on the season he would tie for the Falcons' lead in that category, too. See, it’s all semantics.

Patterson – whose status for Thursday night’s contest against the New England Patriots is questionable due to an ankle injury suffered at Dallas on Sunday – has emerged as one of the biggest surprises in the NFL season because the Falcons have crafted more ways to use his vast package of multi-dimensional athleticism like no other team during an NFL career in its ninth season.

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Cordarrelle Patterson #84 of the Atlanta Falcons runs with the ball as Jon Bostic #53 of the Washington Football Team tries to bring Patterson down in the third quarter at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on October 03, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia.
Cordarrelle Patterson #84 of the Atlanta Falcons runs with the ball as Jon Bostic #53 of the Washington Football Team tries to bring Patterson down in the third quarter at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on October 03, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia.

Sure enough, you’ll see him flanked alongside Matt Ryan in a shotgun formation or bringing up the rear in the I-formation. On the next play, you might find him aligned wide and matched against a corner. Blink and you might miss him positioned in the slot. Shoot, he has already been called on once this season to throw a pass.

It has been a fascinating development. Since Patterson entered the NFL in 2013 as a first-round pick of the Minnesota Vikings, none of the teams on his previous four NFL stops – including a stint with the Patriots in 2018 – found a way to utilize his talent like the Falcons have.

Through nine games, Patterson has averaged 86.2 yards from scrimmage per game while still putting in his shifts as a kickoff returner. During his first eight NFL seasons, he averaged 24.4 yards per game from scrimmage.

His impact on the passing game, it should be noted, comes with him running the full route tree as any wide receiver would – and he isn’t limited to swing passes and screens typical for running backs. His long reception on a go route, for example, set up the last-minute, game-winning field goal at New Orleans in Week 9.

"He’s a football player,” Falcons coach Arthur Smith, in his first season at the helm, told USA TODAY Sports. “A throwback. He’s come full circle. Guys used to play both ways. We’ve got him in some defensive packages, if we need him to be. That’s the truth.”

It’s no wonder that Patterson said with a straight face, “I want to catch an interception. That’s my next goal in the NFL.”

Why stop chasing dreams now? Patterson, whose mark on the NFL record book is imprinted with his prowess as a kickoff returner (his 29.4 yards per return career average is eclipsed only by Hall of Famer Gale Sayers among modern-era players with a minimum of 75 returns, and his eight touchdowns are tied for the league’s all-time standard), is having the time of his football life.

“I’m a quarterback, tomorrow,” he said, beaming.

Someone mentions that with his strapping size (6-2, 227 pounds) maybe he can make the fullback position great again. He laughs.

“You gotta keep ‘em guessing,” he said.

It’s fair to wonder, though, exactly how the work day goes about for Patterson. Which meeting room does he report to when they break down by position?

“Just wherever they tell me to go, I go,” he said. “I’m just here to help this team win, wherever they put me on the field.”

Smith, previously the Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator, saw this potential when signing Patterson as a free agent. He said he wasn’t sure how things would work out initially, but he better realized the possibilities as Atlanta worked Patterson at the various positions during the offseason minicamps and organized team activities.

“If a guy can help us in a certain spot, I’ll certainly try,” Smith said. “That’s where things have evolved sometimes.”

You’d think that if anyone could have tapped Patterson’s skill in such a fashion, it might have been the coach on the other sideline for Thursday night’s clash, Bill Belichick. The Patriots dabbled with Patterson in various spots, but the impact was minimal.

Reflecting on his former player this week, Belichick was effusive in his praise (as he tends to be with opposing players), while adding that the Falcons offense pretty much runs through Patterson and rookie tight end Kyle Pitts. He noted Patterson’s toughness and ability to break tackles and turn short passes into ling gains.

“CP is capable of really, with the ball in his hands, pretty much anything on the field,” Belichick said. “We certainly saw that when he was here. He’s dynamic….No play he makes really surprises me.”

Patterson, who hails from Rock Hill, South Carolina, said that he wasn’t lured to the Falcons so much by the prospect of finally having an expanded role on offense. With Atlanta, he’s had nearly 15 touches per game on offense, compared to about 3 touches per game in his first eight seasons.

So, part of this has clearly been about creating opportunities.

"It wasn’t a selling point,” he insisted as he looked up to the warm, bright sky. “This sun right here sold it enough for me. The good weather. No one could ever sell me. I’ve been on a lot of teams. Coaches tell you this and that. They all be lying and stuff. Atlanta felt like the right place.”

That Patterson grew up about a three-hour drive from Atlanta was undoubtedly a hook. He’s uplifted by the proximity to family, who can attend games with relative ease.

And surely, when he thinks of home and his football roots, it is reminiscent of his current collection of roles. Patterson’s first team in organized football as a kid was with a rec team league, the Trojans.

What position did he play?

“I was everything, man,” he said. “Free safety. Quarterback. Running back. Receiver.”

He paused to reflect.

“See how I put that ‘free safety’ in there first?” he added. “I’m trying to get Dean (Pees, Falcons defensive coordinator) to let me go back there.”

If there’s a will, there just might be a way.

Follow USA TODAY Sports' Jarrett Bell on Twitter @JarrettBell.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Cordarrelle Patterson: Falcons unlock NFL's top do-everything talent