Edelman broke the fifth metatarsal in his left foot during a Week 10 contest against the New York Giants. The injury required surgery, which followed the next day.
The Patriots haven't been the same team without the diminutive target, and they can't win another Super Bowl without his contributions.
His status within the NFL's best-run organization is surprising since a professional football career wasn't supposed to be in the cards.
After all, Edelman was an undersized quarterback who had to go to junior college, didn't play at a Power Five school even after transferring and needed to prove doubters wrong every step of the way.
Life of an Unwanted Quarterback
The 5'10" dual-threat quarterback didn't receive any scholarship offers in high school.
"I wasn't recruited by anyone, not even the other JCs in the conference," Edelman said, per NESN.com's Doug Kyed. "I won't say any names, but College of San Mateo, they wanted me, and they've been a big part of me getting to where I'm at."
For some individuals, the NFL stands as a goal from Day 1. Every moment of the athlete's life is dedicated to making it to the league. Edelman didn't have the same aspirations.
"I wasn't thinking about the NFL when I was [at San Mateo]," Edelman told Kyed. "I was thinking about trying to get a scholarship. That's really what I was worried about."
A scholarship did come—because then-Kent State head coach Doug Martin desperately needed a quarterback. The Golden Flashes coaching staff was searching West Coast junior colleges to find a new signal-caller, and one name continued to come up: Edelman.
"Every junior college we went to, the same name came up," Martin said. "Those coaches said, 'The best player is at San Mateo.' We heard that at three or four colleges. When we showed up at San Mateo, we found out his height turned people off. But if you dug a little deeper by watching the film and talking to the young man, you found out there was something really special there."
Edelman jumped at the chance to play for Kent State. Boise State had also offered him, but it wanted him to remain in junior college for one more year. The Golden Flashes allowed Edelman to transfer after only one year due to good grades.
Martin's Kent State offense relied on spread principles. Prototypical height wasn't a prerequisite for his quarterbacks. Amd since Edelman was the best runner and passer on the team, the coaching staff wanted the ball in his hands on every single play.
"I just loved the confidence he had," said Martin, now New Mexico State's head coach. "He had a swagger about him. He had a big-time chip on his shoulder to prove people wrong. People said, 'He's too short. He's too this. He's too that.' But he had a tremendous belief in himself. I thought that was a really healthy part of his makeup. I thought it would spill over to our team, and it really did.
"He really changed the whole dynamic of our team with his personality."
In Edelman's first year with the Golden Flashes, they improved to 6-6 from 1-10.
By his third year, the coaching staff understood it had something special and wanted to highlight his talents for the NFL. Martin never considered moving Edelman from quarterback to wide receiver, but the coach did put his starting signal-caller on the punt return and coverage units.
Teams took notice of Edelman's skills, but none was more thorough in its evaluation than the Patriots.
"Looking back at it," Martin said, "the Patriots really did the best job evaluating Julian. If I remember correctly, six different assistant coaches—not scouts—came to interview him, put him on the board and worked him out."
New England director of pro personnel Nick Caserio and his staff identified Edelman as a legitimate talent, and the team obviously did its homework, but there were still questions about whether the collegiate quarterback would be drafted.
"As far as translating to the NFL, I really thought he was going to make an NFL team," Martin said. "Every scout that came in, I told them, 'You're not going to be able to cut this kid.' With his character, work ethic and ability to make plays, he's going to make a team. I couldn't see then what he's become now, but it doesn't surprise me."
Edelman did hear his name called when the Patriots used the 232nd overall pick in the seventh round of the 2009 NFL draft to select him.
The organization was clearly intrigued by his talent, but he would need to earn his way onto the roster.
Growth from an Undersized Receiver
When Edelman arrived in New England, the Patriots featured veterans Randy Moss, Wes Welker and Joey Galloway, so the rookie wasn't asked to step in and make an immediate contribution. First, he needed to make the team.
Some athletes are described as having "it." It is a substitute for an indescribable trait that separates said athlete from his contemporaries.
Even though the team considered Edelman a project, New England wide receivers coach Chad O'Shea immediately saw something in him.
"My first impression when we got Julian is you knew he was going to be the hardest working guy out there," O'Shea said. "You could tell right way. He doesn't take no for an answer when it comes to what he wants to achieve. Those attributes quickly jumped out to me, and I felt [they] were unique.
"One thing that was evident from the start was just his ability to get open. It's a natural ability he had with very little coaching from Day 1. Of course, over the years, he's worked at refining those skills. At the source, he's a guy with a really good ability and blessed with physical traits which allow you to get open."
The staff became enamored with Edelman's work ethic and attitude. As a rookie, he caught 37 passes for 359 yards, but his role in the offense decreased over the next two seasons with Wes Welker at the height of his dominance and the reacquisition of Deion Branch. From 2009–12, Welker caught 449 passes for 5,119 yards and 26 touchdowns.
Edelman smartly sponged anything he could from the veterans. O'Shea said Moss, Welker and Branch "provided him with how to do things."
The wide receivers coach continued: "The route-running skills he now displays have definitely been a work in progress. This isn't something that happened in Day 1, Year 1 or 2. It's something he continues to work on every day. It's something he had to work very hard on, but he's been very fortunate to be around some really good veteran players to learn from."
Prior to the 2013 campaign, the Patriots decided to part ways with Welker. What's forgotten is that Edelman nearly left the team as well.
The fourth-year wide receiver entertained free-agent overtures from the Giants, but he signed a one-year deal to return to the Patriots. Former New York head coach Tom Coughlin still regrets the team's decision not to press harder for the talented wide receiver.
"I was very impressed. I was very, very impressed with the young man," Coughlin said in November, per CSNNE.com's Jimmy Toscano. "He was very serious. I kind of like those kind of guys. He was serious. He was serious about his business and the game of football and what he was looking for. I certainly regret the fact that he's not in this uniform. But that's the way it goes."
When New Englad let Welker go and re-signed Edelman, a changing of the guard seemed imminent. The organization, however, never viewed things in such a manner. Edelman wasn't Welker's replacement. He was simply a good wide receiver the team felt could do big things in the coming years.
"We really never talked about the replacement as much as we talked about players on the roster who had great value at that position for our offense," O'Shea said. "We were confident that Julian, in his own way and skill set, could be different from other players. We had a lot of confidence he could be a huge contributor to our offense. We never looked at it as a replacement for anyone. We looked at it as having confidence in Julian to do some things in our offense to really help us."
As a result of an expanded role, Edelman developed into one of the game's best wide receivers.
Vital Part to Patriots' Success
From the outside, a player's success is often decided by his production. Over the last three seasons, Edelman has been as good as any of the league's slot receivers—when healthy.
In the 39 games prior to his injury, he recorded 258 receptions for 2,720 yards and 17 touchdowns.
His importance to the team's offense extends beyond receptions, though.
First and foremost, Edelman serves as Tom Brady's security blanket. Wide receivers must see what their quarterback is seeing. If they don't, ill-advised passes or even turnovers occur. Brady is arguably the most efficient quarterback in NFL history. He also demands a high standard from his receivers. His trust isn't given; it's earned. After seven years together, Brady and Edelman have built an on-field relationship that rivals any duo around the league.
"The relationship and trust the receivers have to earn with Tom doesn't happen overnight. It really doesn't," O'Shea said. "There are so many aspects that Tom requires to earn his trust. It's always an ongoing work in progress. Those guys work very hard to get on the same page. No one has worked harder to earn that right than Julian. He's worked very hard over several years to build that trust and rapport.
"They have a great relationship. It's really neat to have seen it grow over the years. Obviously, Julian came in as a guy just trying to make the team. Now, he's built an established role and is a major contributor to what we do every week. Tom relies on him and trusts him greatly."
Without Edelman in the lineup, the New England offense faltered over its last seven regular-season games.
According to Kyed, Brady's completion percentage dropped 9.8 percent. His passer rating fell 19 points. The offense averaged 2.7 fewer yards per play, and its third-down conversion rate dipped 16.1 percent.
Of course, the entirety of the offense's woes and the team's 3-4 record can't be blamed on Edelman's injury, but his presence in the lineup makes a major difference in how the Patriots operate.
|Patriots Wide Receiver Production in 2015|
Edelman's contributions shouldn't be typecast, either. He's more than a slot receiver, and his versatility helps expand the offense.
"Julian is really a multiple-receiver type of player," O'Shea said. "He's inside aligned in the slot, but he also aligns outside. When you talk about the players, they increase their value based on what they can do. [Offensive coordinator] Josh McDaniels and [head] coach [Bill] Belichick have done a great job of leading our offense. They take what the players do best and allow them to do that. That's what we've done with Julian. We haven't put him in one position. We've really moved him around based on what's best for him."
Due to his size and production, some might not view Edelman as a true No. 1 receiver, but his contributions to the team's success can't be denied.
"I have never talked about who is a No. 1 or 2 target," O'Shea said. "We talk about receivers, receivers who can contribute to us winning football games. Those contributions happen in a lot of different ways: productive in catches, obviously, but also in other very important ways like blocking, being a great teammate, productive running after the catch and so many ways we evaluate and judge these guys. We never really look at it as 1, 2 or 3. We look at it as a group of receivers who can help us win games, and they look at it the same way."
In order for New England to eschew the team's late-season failures, Edelman's presence is required.
Ready, Willing and Able
When the Patriots take the field for the divisional round of the playoffs Saturday, two months will have passed since the day Edelman suffered his foot injury. According to 7 News Boston sports director Joe Amorosino, the wide receiver is expected to be in the lineup.
Joe Amorosino @joeamorosino
Julian Edelman cleared to play. @Edelman11 wearing steel plate in left shoe to prevent flexing & re-fracturing foot. More on #7News at 6pm2016-1-10 22:39:17
New England hosts the Kansas City Chiefs, and with Edelman, it will be a much better team than the one seen over the second half of the season—even if he's somewhat limited.
It's been a long journey for one of the game's premier receivers. He's a self-made man who didn't give in to critics and continued to outwork teammates and opponents alike. He also happens to be a critical part of a Super Bowl-winning team attempting to become back-to-back champions.
"Julian wants to be the first guy in the building constantly working," O'Shea said. "He's in here on his off days. He does a great job of working very hard with strong desire to be the best. Julian is a very team-oriented guy. He's going to do what it takes.
"When you look at what he's accomplished over his lifetime, he's always been an underdog, and he's always found a way to prove people wrong. Quite frankly, that's what he did here. Although we had a lot of confidence in him as a player, he still proved a lot of people wrong."
All quotes obtained firsthand by Brent Sobleski, who covers the NFL draft for Bleacher Report, unless otherwise noted. Follow him on Twitter @brentsobleski.