The NFL is full of lessons for rookies as they adjust to the life of being a professional athlete. Just ask former undrafted free agent Jaret Patterson.
Patterson, who grew up a fan of the Washington Football Team, made a bigger impression than most undrafted players during the 2021 season. In fact, he finished third on the team in rushing yards and had a higher receiving grade (73.3) from Pro Football Focus than seven of the eight running backs drafted in 2021.
Of all the lessons that Patterson learned, though, the biggest was that he needs to stay ready, so he doesn't have to get ready when called upon.
"You just never know when your opportunity is gonna come," Patterson said. "And when it comes, just take full advantage of it."
That philosophy isn't necessarily new to Patterson's career. He wasn't highly recruited coming out of Saint Vincent Pallotti High School in Glendale, Maryland, and he didn't get a chance to be the University of Buffalo's feature back until midway through his freshman season. It was a challenging time for Patterson, but he had faith that if he worked hard enough and took advantage of his opportunities, things would work out for him.
His approach was simple: prepare as if he was the starter and learn from the players in front of him.
"I always have something new to prove, so I kept working," Patterson said in a first-person account of his journey. "That's where I feel like I took advantage of being an underdog with nothing being handed to me."
It was the realization of a childhood dream to play for his hometown team, but Patterson faced a steep challenge to make the roster. There were several veterans in front of him on the depth chart, most of which had numerous starts under their belts.
It was a sense of deja vu, Patterson said, from what he experienced at Buffalo, so he knew how to handle it. He soaked up as much information as he could and approached each day like he was No.1 on the depth chart. It worked out in his favor, too, because he finished the preseason with 180 total yards on 38 touches.
That kind of production is what earned Patterson a spot on the 53-man roster, but that's when Patterson had to be patient for his next opportunity. He was mostly used on special teams for the next 12 games with his offensive snaps rarely going above 10%.
However, he did make the most of his carries when he got them, especially against the Denver Broncos, when he appeared in nearly as many snaps as he did in the previous seven games. He received 11 rushing attempts and ended up leading the team with 46 yards.
"That was nice to see him go out there," said offensive coordinator Scott Turner. "I think he did a nice job with what he got, and we'll continue to see him going forward."
Patterson's usage retracted back to its average after that, but it jumped up again once J.D. McKissic began to miss time with a neck injury and was eventually placed on Injured Reserve. While it's never ideal for a teammate to be out, the increased workload came at an opportune time. He was settling into his role on the offense, and head coach Ron Rivera had taken notice.
"I think he's come a long way," Rivera said Dec. 19. "Right now, because he's got opportunities to play a little bit more, you see his confidence start to build and you see his comfort level in terms of what we do and understanding exactly how to do it. It kind of shows. So that's a good thing for him and us."
Two days later, Patterson scored his first touchdown against the Philadelphia Eagles. He had four carries for 20 yards in the matchup, and one week after that, he had nine rushes for 33 yards. Then, after 15 games of being the backup, he received his first start and had career highs in carries (12) and rushing yards. He even caught five passes for 41 yards and tacked on another touchdown.
It didn't result in a win, which is all Patterson cares about, but it was certainly a sign of his progress.
"It is a slow grind, and you must have that 1% getting better every day," Patterson said. "It helps me to keep going. I want to be an inspiration to a guy that goes undrafted, you can do it."
Patterson's focus remains the same heading into Year 2 of his career. He wants to continue improving as an all-around running back. He wants to show that he can be a playmaker, and he's excited to get started on his first NFL offseason.
Based on how Patterson performed in the final stretch of the season (35 carries for 160 yards), he's earned the right to compete for a larger role. It's unclear when he'll get that opportunity, but it's certain that he'll be ready for it.
"It just makes me go even harder," Patterson said of what he accomplished during his rookie season. "Just keep getting more, never being satisfied … I won't stop until I get what I deserve."