Breaking Down Julian Edelman's Breakout Season for the Patriots

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Breaking Down Julian Edelman's Breakout Season for the Patriots
Jim Rogash/Getty Images

Julian Edelman could have been focused on himself. He's been overlooked time after time, and after becoming the 10th player in Patriots history with over 1,000 receiving yards and only the third player in team history with over 100 catches, Edelman has earned his moment in the spotlight.

He's no longer been buried on the depth chart, he's finally stayed healthy and, as a result, we've finally gotten to see what Edelman's made of. 

Even after the greatest individual accomplishments of his career, and even after joining the pantheon of great Patriots receivers, Edelman was more focused on the name on the front of the jersey than the one on the back. Still, he couldn't stop himself from stopping to smell the roses.

"I mean, it's cool and everything, but you really go out and you play for other things, like playing in the last game of the year and winning that game," Edelman said. "We put ourselves in an opportunity to go one step closer to that. It is definitely kind of cool, just with the road; it's been a crazy road. It's definitely been kind of cool."

Edelman has been written off his entire career. He was a seventh-round pick, drafted as a quarterback—yes, quarterback. He converted to receiver—yes, receiver—that offseason. The project was not immediately fruitful, but his rookie year ended up being the best of his career. Until now.

Injuries have kept him off the field at times. He's been buried on the depth chart behind the likes of Wes Welker and Deion Branch at other times. Despite that, it was somewhat surprising that Edelman didn't attract any suitors in free agency this past offseason. Edelman has always been a dynamic punt returner, and had previously flashed the potential to be the receiver he ultimately became this season.

He was brought back to New England on a one-year, incentive-laden deal that maxed out at $1.015 million. With Welker out the door, and with a lack of familiar targets around Tom Brady, it looked like Edelman might finally earn his opportunity. 

Even at that point, nothing was guaranteed. The Patriots had added a handful of players at his position this offseason, further complicating Edelman's chances of making an impact. They signed Danny Amendola to be Welker's replacement, drafted Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce in the second and fourth rounds, respectively, and brought in Michael Jenkins, Donald Jones and several undrafted free agents including Kenbrell Thompkins.

Anyone might feel the pressure of that situation.

"That's not really pressure. Pressure is when you have like $300 in your [bank] account, like five kids and $800 in bills. That's pressure. It was more of an opportunity. Around here, if you just do your job, you put in the work and you prepare you'll be given an opportunity."

He seized the opportunity and reached all of his incentives by Week 13, and he was still going strong.

"I don't think there's ever any question about Julian's skills or his toughness or his competitiveness," said Patriots coach Bill Belichick. "Yeah, you're right. This is the year he's been able to stay on the field, and certainly his production has paralleled his time on the field. He's done a good job with his opportunities. He always practices hard, plays hard, prepares well. He's always a tough guy you can count on from that standpoint and this year he's been healthy."

In terms of toughness and playing hard, those attributes are on display every time Edelman runs a route.

NFL Game Rewind

Does anyone know how many of Edelman's 105 receptions were made in traffic? The number has to be high. Aside from the bountiful screens he ran this year, most of Edelman's best work came over the middle on short routes where he was asked to work through a defender or two to make the grab.

On the play above, for example, he had to fight through the contact of defensive back Stephon Gilmore and make the catch immediately before being drilled by the safety.

Catches like that were routine for Edelman. That's not a teachable skill. That's just straight-up toughness.

Edelman also has the mental toughness to complement the physical toughness. Many of the season's biggest catches were in the biggest spots. 

His catch-and-run-and-dive-and-spin touchdown against the Denver Broncos gave the Patriots their first lead of the day.

NFL Game Rewind

It also put one of his best skills on display: quickness. With a turn and a juke, Edelman's athleticism was what carried him into the end zone. The Patriots have relied on Edelman's ability to create yards after the catch all season, and the receiver finished with 470 YAC, the 11th-most of any wide receiver in the league this year.

According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), only 25 of Edelman's 105 receptions were made 10 yards or more beyond the line of scrimmage.

In those ways, Edelman ended up being more of a replacement for Welker than Amendola, the player signed as Welker's replacement.

Comparing the slot receivers
Player Targets Receptions Rec. Yds. Y/R TD Drops Drop rate
Julian Edelman 146 105 1,056 10.1 6 13 11.02
Wes Welker 109 73 778 10.7 10 10 12.05

Pro Football Focus

The Patriots offense hasn't always fired on all cylinders, but the absence of a slot receiver hasn't been the reason at any point this year. That's thanks to the steady contributions from Edelman, who initially had fewer than five receptions in just four games.

He ended the season on a six-game streak with at least five receptions, tied for the sixth-longest streak for the Patriots since 1960. His consistency is remarkable. 

His value to the Patriots can't be measured, but the numbers are a good place to start. Edelman finished with 51 receptions, 423 receiving yards and two touchdowns more than anyone else on the roster. He was also the only Patriots receiver to play more than 12 games. 

Now that Edelman has completed one of the finest regular seasons for a wide receiver in Patriots history, it's time for him to do what Welker couldn't do: carry that momentum into the playoffs to make a big impact in the most important games of the season.

If that happens, he will likely increase his chances of being brought back to the Patriots next year.

 

Erik Frenz is also a Patriots/AFC East writer for Boston.com. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand or via team news releases. Salary information courtesy of Spotrac.com.

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