Why 2019 could (and should) be Julian Edelman’s finest season yet

FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS - DECEMBER 30: Julian Edelman #11 of the New England Patriots looks on during the game against the New York Jets at Gillette Stadium on December 30, 2018 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS - DECEMBER 30: Julian Edelman #11 of the New England Patriots looks on during the game against the New York Jets at Gillette Stadium on December 30, 2018 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images) /

Even with the Patriots likely leaning heavier on their ground game in 2019 than in recent seasons past, Julian Edelman is poised for a massive workload.

“Tough times don’t last, tough people do.”

Such is the motto for Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman, whose life and career as a professional football player has come to redefine the word “tough.”

He comes from a working-class family and has an auto mechanic father. He went to school at a mid-major where he played quarterback, not receiver. He had to wait until the 232nd pick of the seventh round of the 2009 NFL Draft to hear his name get finally called.

Nothing about Edelman’s ascension into becoming one of the most recognizable names and faces in sports today was glamorous. He fought tooth and nail to earn a spot as a rookie on the Patriots’ final 53-man roster, largely thanks to his development as a punt returner and his contributions on special teams. When opportunity knocked, Edelman answered, filling in capably for an injured Wes Welker after Welker tore his ACL and MCL at the end of that season.

Over the course of those first four years in the league, Edelman patiently attacked each new challenge that came his way, all the while biding his time and waiting for his moment to shine. He knew, better than anyone, what kind of a football player he was deep down, and that all he needed to do was keep working hard and earning the trust of the men around him – particularly Bill Belichick, his head coach, and Tom Brady, his quarterback.

Edelman is now set to begin his 11th season in the NFL. Somewhat amazingly, he still has yet to make it through a complete 16-game season with the Patriots as a full-time starter. He missed all of 2017 after suffering a gruesome ACL tear in the preseason, then missed the first quarter of last season after being suspended for a positive drug sample.

Despite all this adversity and more, he has three Super Bowl rings and a Super Bowl MVP trophy in his personal hardware collection. He also ranks No. 2 all-time behind Jerry Rice in postseason receptions and postseason receiving yardage. Numerous sportswriters and analysts believe that his sterling playoff record alone is enough to vault him into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

And yet he still has his share of doubters. Critics point to his relatively modest regular season statistics and mediocre standing when it comes to several major career receiving rankings, and claim he hasn’t done enough yet to warrant Canton enshrinement.

In fairness, they have a point.

Edelman, Brady, and the recently-retired Rob Gronkowski have all inarguably engraved their names into NFL playoff immortality. But only Brady and Gronkowski also have the benefit of ranking among the elite leaders at their positions in regular season and career stats as well; Edelman sorely lags behind in those categories.

Part of that is due to injuries and suspensions. Part of it also stems from the Patriots’ star-power at receiver when Edelman was drafted, and how long it took him to finally crack the top of their depth chart. And part of it also speaks volumes about all the competition at the receiver position in the pass-happy modern NFL, and the very nature of the position on an offense to begin with.

It’s extremely rare for a team to employ two quarterbacks during a season unless one of them is used for gadgets and special packages (or as a diversion). It’s also extremely rare for a team to have two starting-caliber tight ends – many teams struggle just to find one. But it’s extremely common for teams, both the good ones and the bad ones, to have several starting wideouts that regularly eat into each other’s production and opportunities throughout the calendar year.

Obviously, it’s the great wide receivers who find a way to separate themselves from the pack and make these kinds of obstacles non-issues. DeAndre Hopkins, Julio Jones, Odell Beckham Jr… they became the preeminent players at their position through a combination of talent, opportunity, hard work, and habitual excellence.

Julian Edelman’s name is rarely listed alongside those others, if ever at all (we’re not counting what’s drunkenly shouted inside Boston sports bars every other February). He doesn’t fit the prototypical star wide receiver mold, and he’s probably never been picked higher than the middle rounds of most respectable fantasy football drafts.

But he has a real opportunity to change all that this season.

Gronkowski is gone, presumably for good. Wideouts Cordarrelle Patterson and Chris Hogan are also gone, playing in the NFC now for other teams. Josh Gordon is back, which obviously helps immensely given all the injuries to the Patriots’ pass-catchers, but there’s still a question of just how quickly he can reintegrate himself into the offense after being away from the team since last December.

Assuming Edelman can stay healthy for a full 16-game season, and that his thumb injury is fully-healed in time for the Steelers in Week 1 on Sunday Night Football, Edelman could be in store for the marquee season of his NFL career. It’s not a stretch to think he could set new career highs for himself in all three major categories: receptions, yards, and touchdowns. His previous high-water marks are 105 receptions in 2013, 1,106 yards in 2016, and seven touchdowns in 2015.

That touchdown number, in particular, feels strangely low given how long he’s played in the NFL for such a prolific, high-scoring franchise. Even with the Patriots expected to hand the ball off to their running backs more in 2019 than perhaps ever before, someone has got to benefit from all of Gronkowski’s now-vacant red zone opportunities and looks in the end zone; it may as well be Edelman.

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All eyes will be on the New England defense this season, and with good reason: the unit looks as fearsome and impressive as the storied group from the early 2000s. On the other side of the ball, Brady will be Brady, and the Patriots will continue to pound the football behind their impressive offensive line.

But when New England does need to throw – and every team does in today’s NFL – it could, it should, and it probably will be doing so in the direction of trusty No. 11, who might finally put up the kind of regular season numbers he needs to silence his critics once and for all.