Why Edelman is on the list
Most players on our "Making the Leap" list are second- or third-year pros primed to see their talent shine. Julian Edelman is different. He's a role player who will be asked to become more this year. Like plenty of New England Patriots before him, he's hung around long enough to earn a big opportunity. He should be ready for the moment.
When Edelman caught 37 passes as a rookie in 2009, it looked like the Patriots found another core player from out of nowhere. A seventh-round draft pick out of Kent State who played quarterback in college, Edelman didn't take long to adjust to becoming a full-time wide receiver. But injuries, dropped passes, a deep Patriots roster and a dalliance playing cornerback in 2011 slowed Edelman's development as a pass catcher.
Edelman is not strictly a slot receiver. Many of his snaps in 2012 came with Wes Welker and/or the team's tight ends playing on the inside. All three of Edelman's receiving touchdowns last season came when he was lined up outside.
Edelman is not Welker. He's not as durable or reliable, but Edelman also is far more explosive. He can play inside and out, and knows what Tom Brady looks for. In a two-game stretch last season, Edelman had a 56-yard receiving touchdown, a 68-yard punt return touchdown, a 47-yard run and a 49-yard punt return. (He also threw in a forced fumble on special teams and returned a fumbled kickoff for a score.)
No current NFL player has a higher career punt return average. (Really. Edelman is amazingly fourth in punt return average all time.) These are not the numbers of a simple chain-mover.
The Patriots wanted to feature Edelman as a bigger part of their offense last year, but he couldn't stay on the field. A hand injury was followed by a concussion that was quickly followed by a foot injury that ended his season. Edelman hung around on the free-agent market for a month this offseason before signing a deal with no guaranteed money. He aggravated the foot in May and isn't a lock to be ready for camp. I watched Edelman repeatedly break tackles on tape, which often left him vulnerable to taking big hits.
If he's healthy, there's a legitimate concern that Edelman can't beat man coverage on the outside consistently. But the Patriots don't line up anyone in the same spot play after play, and Edelman's versatility is one of his greatest strengths.
Edelman is often compared to Welker, but longtime Patriot slot man Troy Brown is the better comparison. Brown played four seasons in New England before ever topping 250 receiving yards, making his money on special teams. Like Edelman, Brown was quicker than fast and had a knack for big plays. Brown didn't experience his breakout until his eighth season, but the stars are aligned for Edelman to make noise in Year 5. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels loves Edelman and knows he can use him in a variety of ways.
There's no reason why Edelman shouldn't be the Patriots' No. 2 receiver behind Danny Amendola, other than health. Edelman is the only wideout on the roster to have caught a pass from Tom Brady. Rookies Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce are mysteries, but they didn't necessarily look ready in organized team activities. Michael Jenkins and Donald Jones are veterans trying to keep their careers afloat. And there isn't a tight end on the roster ready to catch a lot of passes consistently until Rob Gronkowski gets healthy.
The Patriots haven't needed Edelman before. They need him now, and he's shown the ability in his career to be a difference-maker. A sneaky season of more than 800 receiving yards could follow for Edelman.
Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @greggrosenthal.