Early signs at training camp indicate wide receiver/defensive back/punt returner/kick returner Julian Edelman could play a big role in the turnaround of a special teams unit that finished last season 16th with 10.3 yards per punt return, and an abysmal 29th in average kick return yardage with 21.4.
Many may have failed to notice the Patriots' struggles returning kicks and punts in 2011. It's understandable, with the Patriots moving the ball with surgical efficiency in 2011—6.3 yards per play, ranking third in the NFL.
I'm sure several head coaches would sacrifice a limb to have an offense that good with a struggling special teams unit, but the Patriots aren't settling.
"Well obviously, last year [that] was an area of inexperience for us," said special teams coordinator Scott O'Brien. "It's like in any phase: after a season, you're always looking at improving no matter how good you are or how poor you are. You're evaluating schemes, personnel, what you have, what you can go forward with, but it's like anything. It's a point of emphasis for us, but it always is."
It's been a point of emphasis for Edelman throughout his career.
Since being drafted by the Patriots in the seventh round of the 2009 NFL draft, Edelman has done a lot of things for the Patriots, but not the one thing he had become most familiar with at Kent State: playing quarterback.
"[Julian] had no experience [as a returner]" said O'Brien. "He had some natural instincts, pretty good ball skills, but again, there was a learning curve for him to not only catch that ball, but to understand what the ball was doing in the air, how it was going to come down, and he worked really hard on it."
To learn how to be a successful punt returner is a process, from the big-picture needs of a punt returner—such as field awareness, physical tools, understanding schemes and blocking assignments—all the way down to the minor details—such as fielding the punt, something which O'Brien indicated is "one of the hardest things to do" for any player.
"It's hard for young guys," said O'Brien, "even if they've had experience coming in with us at the beginning, let alone a guy that's never really done it."
Edelman returned just 12 kicks last year—eight shy of the team-leading Danny Woodhead with 20—but was the Patriots' leading punt returner with 28 of them in 2011 and 21 in 2010, returning one for a touchdown in each season.
His ability to contribute on special teams has helped him make the roster year after year, and it may be even more important now than ever before, with a deeper competition at wide receiver than the Patriots have seen in recent years.
He has been the team's primary punt returner for the majority of training camp, which bodes well for his chances of making the roster, and he's looked good as a wide receiver as well. The reps as a returner, Edelman says, are the key to his growth in that area:
This will be my fourth year and—not that I've played in a lot of games, and not that I'm at where I want to be, I have a long way to go—but anytime you get a lot of reps at something, you're naturally going to get a little bit more comfortable with it. We're going in the direction we want to. We have a long way to go, and we're working on that aspect of the game.
O'Brien touched on the learning curve and understanding the mental aspect of the game.
"There's a learning process with all returners," said special teams coordinator Scott O'Brien, "no matter what experience they've had in the past because of the schemes and the coverage principles that we have to deal with here. It becomes a learning process of how they do things besides just the physical skills they do have."
But of course, the physical aspect is at the forefront. O'Brien pointed to toughness as the No. 1 criterion in kick returners.
Toughness may be an understatement: O'Brien said it's "like having to run through a door and you don't know what's at the other end."
Coach O'Brien may have equated it to running through a wall, but Edelman took it one step further and likened returning kicks to finding your way through a car wreck: "It's like Nascar: When you see smoke, you put the pedal to the metal and you find a lane and go."
Erik Frenz is the AFC East lead blogger for Bleacher Report. Be sure to follow Erik on Twitter and "like" the AFC East blog on Facebook to keep up with all the updates. Unless specified otherwise, all quotes are obtained first-hand.