FOXBORO -- No skill position player on the Patriots roster this season has done a better job of taking advantage of the opportunity presented to him than Julian Edelman.
The former college quarterback was able to step into the offensive void this year, one that was created following the departure of Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd and the injury-related absences of Rob Gronkowski, Shane Vereen and Danny Amendola, and as a result, at the age of 27, Edelman is having a career-year. Through 13 games, the 5-foot-10, 198-pounder has 76 catches for 775 yards (more than twice his previous career high which came as a rookie in 2009) and five touchdowns.
Dubbed “Minitron” by Tom Brady -- presumably, a variation on the nickname given to the 6-foot-5, 236-pound Calvin “Megatron” Johnson -- Edelman has clearly won the trust of the quarterback.
“He’s been so dependable and consistent all year for our team. He’s been the one veteran player on the offense who’s been in there and been around,” Brady said of Edelman. “He did a great job. He always does a great job. He’s tough, smart and disciplined.”
It would be hard to imagine Edelman managing to come up with this sort of production if even half of the offensive options who departed remained, or those who were injured had been able to play a full season to this point. And it was clear that his previous development was impeded by the Patriots reliance on veteran wideouts like Randy Moss and Wes Welker. But to this point in the 2013 season, he’s done well to take advantage of the reps he’s been given -- he’s been durable (he leads all offensive skill position players on the team in snaps with 823, according to Pro Football Focus), consistent (his 76 catches on 110 targets are tops on the team), and for what the Patriots are paying him, one of the best bargains in the league.
This past offseason, Edelman signed a one-year deal worth $765,000 this past offseason with no guaranteed money, while Wes Welker inked a two-year, $12 million deal with the Broncos. While it’s unfair to make the comparison to Welker, many New England fans relish the fact that through 13 games, Edelman’s numbers are comparable to those of Welker, and in some cases, even better: Edelman bests him when it comes to receptions (78 to 76), while Welker has a slight edge in yardage (778 to 775) and a sizable edge in touchdowns (10 to 5).
However, the number that should surprise people the most is yards after the catch. For several seasons, Welker was the gold standard when it came to YAC: in his six years in New England, he led the league in yards after the catch on four occasions, including a career-high 751 yards in 2008, as well as 702 last year. (Remarkably, in his six seasons, 3,931 of his 7,459 receiving yards during the regular season came after the catch, or 53 percent.)
While it’s important to note that Welker’s responsibilities have been tweaked slightly now that he’s wearing a Bronco on the side of his helmet instead of the Flying Elvis, it’s interesting to note that this season, Edelman has a slight edge on Welker when it comes to YAC by a 322 to 321 margin.
It is an absolutely vital year for Edelman. If he remains healthy the rest of the way, he should enter free agency this offseason with a 90-catch season on his resume, as well as considerable special teams value. But while he’s looked at in New England as something of an offensive savior -- one who will continue to be heavily relied upon going forward as the passing game adjusts without Gronkowski -- in truth, Edelman is simply this year’s vintage late-bloomer at wide receiver. It’s a class of pass catcher that often goes overlooked coming out of college, but through sheer will and luck are able to make themselves into a primary target somewhere between the ages of 25 and 28.
There are several cases of receivers taking a few seasons to fully wrap their heads around the idea of playing in the NFL. Roddy White, Vincent Jackson, Steve Smith and Reggie Wayne were all first-, second- or third-round picks coming out of college who took some time to find their footing before going on to successful careers in the league. But there are other similar instances of receivers drafted relatively late or not at all -- like Edelman and Welker -- finding their footing between the ages of 25 and 27 and going on to long and successful careers in the league.
Welker: The most natural comparison is Welker for several reasons, not the least of which is that Edelman’s initial nickname when he arrived in Foxboro was “Mini-Wes.” The undrafted slot receiver out of Texas Tech bounced from the Chargers to the Dolphins, and in 2006, has a breakout year as a 25-year-old with the Dolphins when he caught 67 passes for 687 yards and a touchdown. That earned him a five-year deal with the Patriots, and he would go to become the most dominant receiver in the league over a six-year span.
Donald Driver: After 37 catches in his first three seasons in Green Bay, the seventh-round pick out of Alcorn State had his breakout year at age 27, when he had 70 catches for the 2002 Packers. That began a nine-year stretch where he caught at least 50 passes a season for Green Bay. The three time Pro Bowler wrapped up his career with 743 catches for 10,137 yards and 61 touchdowns.
Joe Horn: Like Welker, it took a change of scenery for Horn to find his footing. A fifth-round pick by the Chiefs out of Itawamba Junior College, in his first four seasons with the Chiefs, he was an offensive accessory with 53 catches in four seasons. But after signing with the Saints in 2000 at the age of 27, his career took off, as he had five seasons with 80-plus catches while in New Orleans.
Troy Brown: An eighth-round selection out of Marshall who was cut and brought back several times before making a name for himself with the Patriots, he had his first season of 40-plus catches with New England at the age of 27. That set the stage for an 83-catch season in 2000 at the age of 29 and 101 receptions at the age of 30 in 2001.
Of course, there’s the flip side to the late-bloomers -- the one-year wonders who had a season out of nowhere, only to slip back into relative anonymity a year or two later. Edelman’s success as a rookie, combined with his special teams skill set, would seem to suggest he’d be immune to this category. But there have been several receivers who appeared to find their groove once they hit their mid-20s, only to never maintain the consistency needed to succeed in the NFL.
Albert Connell was a 25-year-old receiver with the 1999 Redskins (a fourth-round pick) who caught 62 passes, but never caught more than 40 again and was out of the league two years later. Patrick Jeffers was a fifth-round pick of the Broncos in 1996 and caught 63 passes with the Panthers in 1999 at the age of 26. He only caught 98 for his career, which ended after the 2001 season. And Marcus Robinson was a fourth-round pick of the Bears in 1998, and had 84 receptions for Chicago in 1999 as a 24-year-old, but never reached those same heights again before calling it a career at the age of 31.
Ultimately, the blueprint for Edelman is clear -- the career arc of Welker, Driver, Horn and Brown suggest that a relatively anonymous late-bloomer can prosper long-term if given the opportunity and is in the right surroundings. The question is whether or not Edelman can use his 2013 season as an eventual springboard to greatness and a lengthy career in the NFL. Based on what we’ve seen to this point, he’s certainly off to a good start.