Minicamp marvel Damoun Patterson early surprise of Steelers summer practice
In May, after having his only pro offer rescinded, Damoun Patterson faced the longest of odds to securing a contract with an NFL team. He was among 20 undrafted free agents — and 55 players overall — invited to attend the Pittsburgh Steelers’ three-day minicamp on a tryout basis.
Fast forward to this past weekend. Patterson ran routes with the first-team offense in Steelers camp, catching passes from Ben Roethlisberger and squaring off with the likes of cornerbacks Joe Haden and Artie Burns.
“It’s still like a dream,” said Patterson, a 23-year-old wide receiver from Youngstown State. “I feel like I’ve been blessed.”
Patterson, one of two players signed to a contract after that minicamp three months ago, has emerged as one of the early surprises of Steelers training camp. He has shown flashes of speed on deep routes, held his ground on passes over the middle and displayed the type of physicality the Steelers expect from their pass catchers.
Patterson also has worked his way into the top receiver groupings in practice. Some of that work has been necessitated because of injuries to Antonio Brown, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Darrius Heyward-Bey and Marcus Tucker. But it’s also because coach Mike Tomlin wants to see what the 6-foot-2, 190-pound Patterson has to offer when facing increased competition.
“I’ve seen him run by some guys in that third group, and I wanted to see if he could run by some guys in some other groups,” Tomlin said Friday night after using Patterson on the first team during the workout at Latrobe Memorial Stadium. “We’re going to mix things up this time of the year. It’s only appropriate to get to know guys and what they are capable of.”
Patterson didn’t want to read too much into the opportunity.
“I just think they wanted to see how much attention we’ve been paying to detail,” he said. “I was prepped pretty well. The speed is still the same, and it’s the same plays, just with a different group.”
Patterson remains a longshot to win a spot on the 53-man roster, but he has made strides perhaps nobody expected when he reported to minicamp in May.
Patterson had a nomadic college football career, enrolling at Utah State before transferring to Highlands (Kansas) Community College and spending his final two years at Youngstown State. There, he had 52 catches for 1,039 yards and six touchdowns in two seasons — no eye-popping numbers, but he also displayed a knack for making plays on special teams.
At YSU’s pro day, which was attended by 13 teams including the Steelers, Patterson ran the 40-yard dash in 4.49 seconds. That was .05 seconds faster than James Washington, the Steelers’ second-round pick, ran at the NFL Combine.
Still, interest was minimal heading into the NFL Draft.
“He is big, fast, physical and loved to play special teams, but the problem was we didn’t have much film that stood out other than special teams,” said Gus Mustakas, the former Pitt player who is Patterson’s agent. “He also played for a team that ran the ball a lot, but I knew if he was given the right opportunity, he could blossom.”
After the draft concluded, Mustakas said he received a verbal agreement from the Atlanta Falcons to join them as a free agent. This was perfect, Mustakas thought, for the kid who worshipped the team while growing up in Apopka, Fla.
“He wrote a report in the second grade that he was going to be an Atlanta Falcon one day,” Mustakas said. “It was going to be an amazing situation for him.”
Except the Falcons called Mustakas about “30-45 minutes later” and rescinded the offer.
“That left us in a difficult situation,” Mustakas said. “After the draft, it’s chaos for these undrafted kids, and a lot of things closed up quickly.”
When a Steelers scout called about another client, Mustakas said he pushed for Patterson, submitting that special teams footage as a reference. That secured the minicamp tryout.
“That was good enough for me,” Patterson said. “I knew I was an underdog. I didn’t have big numbers. I didn’t go to a big school, so I had to go out and prove myself.”
After the third and final day of camp, Patterson was summoned upstairs to the Steelers offices. He and offensive lineman R.J. Prince were the only two of the tryout attendees to be given a contract.
Now, he’s getting increased reps in training camp and figures to get plenty of snaps Thursday when the Steelers open preseason play in Philadelphia. Patterson is trying to follow in the footsteps of Tucker, who was signed out of rookie minicamp three years ago and has a chance to earn a roster spot after spending two years on the practice squad.
“That gives me a lot of hope and motivation to keep going, not just bummed out that I came here from minicamp and I’ll probably be one of the first guys to be let go,” he said. “It gives me motivation to keep going.”
Mustakas is happy his client didn’t end up signing with Atlanta.
“It’s a lucky timing thing,” he said. “He plays like a Pittsburgh receiver.”
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @tribjoerutter.