When the Patriots drafted Julian Edelman out of Kent State in 2009, the franchise was in a period of transition. Many of the defining players from the team's dynasty era were gone, or soon to depart. Time was forcing the Patriots to move on, to assemble a young team with fresh faces and, ultimately, to sculpt a brilliant new identity.
Edelman's rookie year coincided with Tom Brady's dramatic return from the devastating knee injury which had robbed him of the previous season. On the surface, the 2009 season was billed as something of a rejuvenation year for Brady and the Patriots, but, realistically, the team didn't have enough depth or toughness. They got battered by the Ravens in the wild-card round.
Things got worse in 2010, when they were defeated by the Jets in the divisional round. It was a brutal loss which signified a serious problem that couldn't be ignored any longer: The Patriots were lost. They were caught somewhere in time, stuck between the old and the new, without any refreshing character.
They scratched the surface of a new identity in 2011, when Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez exploded on to the scene and altered the way the Patriots played football. Gronkowski and Hernandez revolutionized the tight end position and established themselves as the hybrid models of what every other team would come to lust after and ultimately attempt to duplicate. More importantly, they brought a new and unique personality to the team and defined the new era of Patriots football.
But the new era wasn't perfect.
A tough injury to Gronkowski played a role in another crushing Super Bowl loss to the Giants. Injuries to the tight ends continued into 2012, along with further erosion on defense, which amounted to another playoff defeat at the hands of the Ravens. The Patriots were still being held back by a lack of identity. They weren't greater than the sum of their parts—they were exactly what the sum of their parts indicated they were: Not strong enough, not cohesive enough and not deep enough.
But, over those four wayward years of soul searching for the Patriots, Julian Edelman had quietly established himself as one of the toughest and most intriguing forces on the roster. He stayed involved, season after season, even when he had every reason and every excuse to get lost in the shuffle of the team's revolving door of players.
No matter what the circumstance was, Edelman found ways to contribute.
When his snaps on offense dwindled, he established himself as the team's ace returner. He returned a touchdown on special teams in 2010, 2011 and 2012. That's simply amazing. And, when he was asked to do more, he stepped up and filled the void at defensive back. He wasn't great at it, but he was extremely solid. He worked his tail off. He never gave anything less than everything he had.
Finally, last season, Edelman got his opportunity to shine as a receiver, while continuing to excel on special teams. He met the challenge in style.
In back-to-back weeks last November, Edelman scored on both offense and special teams. In the first of those games, against the Colts, he caught a short left pass for a two-yard touchdown and returned a 68-yard punt for a touchdown. The following week, against the Jets, he caught a deep left ball for a 56-yard touchdown and also recovered Joe McKnight's return fumble, which he returned for a 22-yard touchdown.
Edelman was on his way to stringing together his full breakout season, but a few things got in the way. His durability was the most notable issue. A hand injury sidelined him for a few games early in the season and a foot injury ended his season prematurely in December. In addition, fellow receiver Wes Welker gradually fell into his normal, extraordinary routine, which cut into Edelman's development, just as the focus on the tight ends had spliced into Edelman's development in 2011.
But now, heading into 2013, Welker's gone. Brandon Lloyd's gone, too. The depletion in New England's receiving unit is nothing to celebrate, but it bodes well for Edelman, as it opens the door for him to finally deliver his breakout season and connect more with Tom Brady.
Edelman discussed his budding relationship with his quarterback last year on an episode of WEEI's Mut and Merloni. He was asked about his preparation during the offseason and practicing with Brady. Edelman responded:
It's kind of like painting. Painting's easy, it's prepping the wall that's hard...It's all in the offseason and in training camp, and that's when it translates over to the regular season...I'm trying to be in [Brady's] back pocket whenever he needs me. I went out to LA, if he needed me on a Friday night, 9 o'clock, I was dropping everything and I was going over there to catch balls. He's the general, so whatever he wants, I'm there to give it to him.
That quote perfectly sums up Julian Edelman. His worth ethic is sublime and his devotion to the team is unquestionable. It's as if Bill Belichick snuck into Edelman's head and rearranged all the wires to meet his exact specifications.
There's a reason why Edelman has survived this great sea change over the last four years, while a slew of other great players have been shipped out of New England's front door. Edelman's still here because his style of play is both old school and futuristic. He's tough and ridiculously versatile, which means he carries the same DNA as New England's superhuman tight ends.
Edelman's young and his best football is ahead of him. And, most importantly, he's one of the essential keys to bridging the gap towards a new championship-caliber identity for the team. This is the type of player who changes things. His increased presence will do the Patriots a world of good.
But first, they need to re-sign him.
And they should. He's awesome. He's gritty, resilient and selfless. He finds ways to limit the deficiencies of the team by sacrificing his own body to plug the leaks, no matter what position he needs to play to get the job done.
He's cut from the same cloth as the legendary players from New England's dynasty era. And, if the Patriots intend to recapture the essence of that dynasty and establish a new era of playoff dominance and banners, they'll need tough, versatile players who are coachable, fearless and physically demanding of themselves and of their teammates.
That's the sort of player Edelman is.
He's a playmaker in all three phases of the game: Offense, defense and special teams. That's too difficult to replace. Why would the Patriots even try to replace him? It's madness to even think about it.
A three-year contract would be ideal. It's a win-win situation: Brady gets to keep a receiver he's comfortable with, the Patriots get a rare and iconic young player to bring them one step closer to realizing their identity, fans get a great player to root for and Edelman gets to maximize his potential as a legitimate receiving threat by playing with the best quarterback in the league. That's enough to make everybody happy.
Let's get this contract done and play some football.