- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 22, 2021

NFL players, heck, athletes in general, tend to shy away from comparisons. Sure, they’ll be happy to cite influences or idols, but directly comparing them to another player? That’s a no-no, for most.

But Jaret Patterson isn’t like most athletes. So he’s more than happy to throw out a few names.

“If there were three running backs that were me,” Patterson says, “It’d be Darren Sproles, Ray Rice and Maurice Jones-Drew.” 

The reason Patterson pulled out those names is obvious: They are all shorter running backs who, despite their size, were able to carve out big roles in the league. They were counted out, but won people over. Patterson, at 5-foot-7 and 195 pounds, prides himself as a “short, compact guy” that runs hard and “can make guys miss” — like Sproles, Rice and Jones-Drew.

“I feel like I can play like all three of those,” Patterson said, “or even better.”

The University of Buffalo product has a ways to go before he can truly be thought of in the same category as those three, but the undrafted rookie again dazzled for Washington in Friday’s 17-13 win over the Cincinnati Bengals. After a promising debut against the Patriots, Patterson accounted for 133 all-purpose yards: 71 rushing on 16 carries, 25 receiving on three catches and one 37-yard kickoff return. 

Patterson is becoming too hard to ignore — the running back is once again capturing the attention of teammates and coaches, just like he did in high school and college. Starter Antonio Gibson called Patterson “lots of fun.” Quarterback Taylor Heinicke, no stranger to being undersized, said people “perk up” to see the rookie, noting the crowd buzz every time he’d hand off to Patterson. Fellow rookie Dyami Brown called Patterson special. 

Patterson, who grew up in Glenn Dale, Maryland, has produced the types of performances that will land him on Washington’s 53-man roster. Of course, that’s not a given — next Saturday’s preseason finale against the Baltimore Ravens could be key in determining the rookie’s fate. But Patterson can solidify his spot, especially if he can prove to be an electric kick returner, something that Washington doesn’t have. 

Rivera said he sees the way his players have gravitate toward Patterson. He can tell, he said, the way teammates appreciate Patterson’s story — the way he works and works and asks questions to get better each week.

“When you win your teammates over, we notice as coaches,” Rivera said. “We notice that. … Those are the things that mean something. We’ll continue to watch that because when players react to other players, it tells you something about them.”

In some ways, that’s just what Patterson has had to do to latch on. And that’s not anything new to him. Before attending Buffalo, Patterson had to grayshirt — meaning Patterson had to defer his enrollment a semester just to gain a scholarship. He grew accustomed to using the negatives as fuel. The lack of college recruiters. The concerns about his size. The doubts about his speed. 

Before the NFL draft, Washington scout Pete Picerelli ”hammered ” general manager Martin Mayhew and executive Marty Hurney to watch Patterson’s tape, Rivera said. Responsible for scouting players in the Northeast region, Picerelli had seen the ways Patterson tie an FBS-record with eight touchdowns in a game, how the small back led the nation with 178.7 rushing yards per game. He was enthralled. 

The influence worked. Washington put a draftable grade on Patterson — one good enough to be selected, Rivera said — and when the 21-year-old ultimately went undrafted, the team made Patterson a priority. In fact, he was the team’s only signed undrafted free agent this year.

“We kept a real good eye on him,” Rivera said. “When I really do think what’s happened is that position is very undervalued right now because everybody’s willingness to want to throw the ball 35, 45, 50 times a game and only run it 10 to 20. The game is changing a little bit. The value of that running back isn’t there like it used to be. 

“You don’t see a lot of high-priced, high-valued running backs unless they have some potential in terms of the passing game. I think it’s something that’s kind of slipping right now.”

Rivera brings up an interesting point: The numbers for drafted running backs keep dropping, and the ones being taken are going lower and later. From 2010 to 2019, only 16 running backs were selected in the first round — down half from the decade prior (32 from 2000 to 2009). 

But Patterson is here now. As part of Washington’s annual rookie skit, Patterson got up in front of the group and sang. His song choice was an appropriate one: “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.”

“It’s not how you get in,” Patterson said. “It’s how you stay in.” 

• Matthew Paras can be reached at mparas@washingtontimes.com.

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