Cordarrelle Patterson could replace Dion Lewis as Patriots' top kickoff returner

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- When running back Dion Lewis signed a free-agent deal with the Tennessee Titans last week, the New England Patriots didn't just lose the No. 1 running back on their depth chart. They also lost their top kickoff returner, which might best explain the team's interest in acquiring Cordarrelle Patterson in a trade with the Oakland Raiders.

Patterson is one of the fastest players in the NFL, a prolific returner who never has consistently emerged as a top-flight receiver despite entering the NFL as a first-round draft choice. In 2014, New England coach Bill Belichick said of Patterson: "Obviously an explosive guy. You see that in the return game. He’s a deep threat. He’s dangerous with the ball in his hands, whether you hand it to him or throw it to him on a short pass. He’s a dangerous catch-and-run guy; he’s also a vertical guy. He’s a strong player -- big, strong, hard to tackle, good speed."

The trade could be a case of the Patriots placing a greater value on kickoff returns than the Raiders, who basically dumped Patterson in exchange for a modest move up the draft board in the late rounds. The Raiders also are implementing a new offensive scheme under coach Jon Gruden, so perhaps it also was a case of Patterson's price tag ($3 million base salary) not being a fit for how Oakland envisioned him in its offense.

The Patriots sometimes have targeted players in those types of situations, with the recent acquisition of defensive tackle Danny Shelton falling into that category. Shelton was drafted as a nose tackle in Cleveland's 3-4 scheme in 2015, but with the Browns switching to a 4-3, his value to them wasn't as high and the Patriots struck the deal.

As for Patterson, there's no guarantee that he sticks with the Patriots, as his salary is non-guaranteed. So the club essentially can see how Patterson fits in camp -- paying him a $250,000 workout bonus -- and then decide if he's worth the investment (assuming good health). There is limited risk in that sense.

Patterson had 19 kickoff returns for 538 yards (28.3 average) last season, while Lewis had 23 returns for 570 yards (24.8 average) and one touchdown. Patterson has only one career punt return but is also an excellent gunner, which is a role that captain Matthew Slater -- a free agent -- has performed admirably over the years.

On offense, where Patterson had 31 catches for 309 yards last season, he wouldn't project to a top role in New England but could be utilized as a gadget-type weapon. Brandin Cooks, Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan, Phillip Dorsett, Malcolm Mitchell, Kenny Britt, Riley McCarron and Cody Hollister are currently on the depth chart; Edelman and Mitchell are coming off knee injuries that cost them the 2017 season. But Patterson's special-teams value could give him an edge over Dorsett, Mitchell and Britt -- who aren't big factors in the kicking game -- if he shows he's capable.