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Patriots positioned to survive Julian Edelman suspension

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The Patriots are used to playing without receiver Julian Edelman. They did it all of last season (thanks to a torn ACL) and for seven games in 2015, and they finished in the top three in scoring both years. No team handles unexpected absences better.

The larger question, in the wake of Thursday's news that Edelman is facing a four-game suspension for violating the NFL's performance-enhancing substances policy, is what sort of player he will be when he rejoins the team.

Edelman emerged as one of the NFL's best slot receivers despite his size (5-foot-10, 200 pounds) because of his incredible quickness and ability to make plays after the catch. One easy way to annoy your local Patriots fan -- one of America's favorite pastimes -- is to tell him that Edelman at his peak was a more dynamic and valuable player than Wes Welker ever was. Now that Edelman is 32 years old and coming off a torn ACL, while also having a history of foot issues, it's unrealistic to expect him to reach those heights again. The Patriots just have to hope his decline is not as swift as that of Welker, who left the Patriots as he was about to turn ... 32 years old.

The expectation among many Patriots fans was that Edelman would have stepped in as the team's No. 1 wideout this season, soaking up a lot of the production that went to Brandin Cooks (who was traded to the Rams) and Danny Amendola (who signed in Miami) last season. I wasn't so sure that would happen even before this news, because of Edelman's age, his injury history and the reality that the only constant in New England is change.

The team is diminished at wide receiver overall, but no one in New England should panic, because it's a deep group. Third-year pro Malcolm Mitchell, who keyed the team's Super Bowl comeback over the Falcons, is back after spending 2017 on injured reserve with a knee injury. Chris Hogan and free-agent pickup Jordan Matthews will have roles. And there will be incredible competition for the final wideout spots among Phillip Dorsett, Kenny Britt, Cordarrelle Patterson and rookie slot receiver Braxton Berrios, who Miami Hurricane fans swear will be the next Edelman. Tight end Rob Gronkowski remains New England's true No. 1 receiver, and the team has a raft of running backs who catch the ball, including James White, Rex Burkhead and first-round pick Sony Michel.

Tom Brady has no shortage of options to throw to, and it's on Edelman to earn his place back on offense. Being suspended will undoubtedly make that more difficult, and there's no guarantee he'll have a primary role when he does return to the field.

The good news for Edelman and the Patriots, if there is any here, is they have time to plan for his absence, and he'll be back on the field when the Patriots' offense remains in the early stages of its development. The same New England offense that came from behind against Jacksonville in the playoffs and then gained 613 yards in the Super Bowl was very much a work in progress as late as December of last season, with the members of an ever-shuffling receiver crew still settling into their respective roles.

No team does a better job adapting on the fly and covering up weaknesses than the Patriots, which is how they won a Super Bowl without Rob Gronkowski and went 3-1 without Tom Brady to start the 2016 season. Nearly every receiver they have has the flexibility to play inside, where Brady likes to throw best, especially Matthews and Hogan. The offense figured to be more geared around their deep running back group this season; Edelman's suspension might only speed that process along.

Then again, the Patriots' ability to problem solve is often so apparent because they get out of the gates slowly. After an offseason full of roster change on both sides of the ball, Bill Belichick already figured to have his hands full in September. That challenge will only be more pronounced with Edelman out of the mix, especially when there is no guarantee that the Edelman New England used to know will ever return.

Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @greggrosenthal.

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