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Falcons’ Cordarrelle Patterson: Best NFL Free Agent of Year?

Through the first five games of the 2021 NFL season, Cordarrelle Patterson is on pace for career highs in lots of offensive category.

The Atlanta Falcons earned praise for signing Mike Davis to a two-year, $5.5 million contract this offseason. After playing very well with the Carolina Panthers while replacing Christian McCaffrey, Davis was expected to be an improvement for the Falcons running game.

He has been. But the real improvement for the Atlanta Falcons offense has come from a much bigger free agent bargain -- Cordarrelle Patterson.

Patterson, who the Falcons signed to a one-year, $1.3 million deal in April, had another strong game Sunday in London, posting 114 yards from scrimmage against the Jets. He leads the Falcons in that category with 468 yards, and it's not even close. Kyle Pitts is second with 308 yards from scrimmage although Pitt's is averaging five more yards per touch.

Despite being listed as a running back on the Falcons official depth chart, Patterson has been one of Atlanta's most efficient wide receivers. Through the first four games, he was leading the Falcons in yards per catch. After Pitt's big day in London, Patterson is second for the Falcons with 11.8 yards per reception.

Patterson's success in the receiving game isn't a huge shock because that's the position he's played the most in his career. But with the Falcons, Patterson is having success running out of the backfield too. He's first among Falcons running backs with at least 10 carries, averaging 4.2 yards per rush. Patterson has 173 rushing yards and one of the team's two rushing touchdown this season.

Behind his hot start, Patterson is just 60 rushing yards away from a new career high. He'll likely have that along with his most rushing attempts in a season before the end of October.

At his current pace, Patterson will also reach a new career high in receptions and receiving yards. His previous best for receiving yards is 469 from his rookie season in 2013. Patterson hauled in a career-best 52 passes in 2016.

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He has 25 catches and 295 yards after five games this season. If continues to record five receptions per game, Patterson will have more than 80 catches this year.

It will be interesting to see if Patterson can continue this pace that's unprecedented for him in his nine-year NFL career. But given that he's suddenly become a hugely intricate part of the Falcons offense, only an injury will keep Patterson from blowing past his career bests in catches, receiving yards, carries, rushing yards and yards from scrimmage.

Unfortunately, from the Falcons perspective, Patterson is playing so well that he's going to earn a lot more than $1.3 million next season. If he continues to prove he can both run and catch the ball while averaging 10-13 touches per week, Patterson may even earn a multi-year deal despite being more than 30 years old.

And that makes it highly improbable Patterson will be back with the Falcons next season. As the Falcons move further away from the Thomas Dimitroff era, their salary cap situation will likely improve. But according to Spotrac, the Falcons are projected to have just $14.7 million in salary cap space heading into free agency. That ranks 25th in the NFL.

But maybe the most encouraging part of Patterson's emergence is not that he's playing so well he's moving out of Atlanta's price range. Rather that new general manager Terry Fontenot had the smarts to sign him, and coach Arthur Smith has gotten more out of him than anyone ever previously.

Patterson is an encouraging sign that the Falcons can be great bargain buyers until the salary cap fixes itself in a couple years.