Julian Edelman’s role models in football have gradually evolved.
As an undersized quarterback with a big arm growing up in Redwood City, Calif., he wanted to be the next Doug Flutie.
As a dual-threat quarterback at Kent State, he became the next Josh Cribbs, his 3,371 yards of total offense in 2008 breaking Cribbs’ single-season record.
Now in his third year as a wide receiver and kick returner with the New England Patriots, Edelman has turned into Troy Brown.
Edelman has played three ways this season for the Patriots, who are headed to Super Bowl XLVI in Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis for a rematch next Sunday with the New York Giants. The Patriots hope to avenge a 17-14 Super Bowl loss to the Giants in 2007.
Edelman, 5-foot-10 and 198 pounds, caught just four passes for 34 yards in 2011. The seventh-round pick in 2009 also returned punts and kickoffs, earning AFC special teams player of the week honors after scoring on a 72-yard punt return Nov. 21 against the Kansas City Chiefs. Edelman brought back 28 punts for a 10.7-yard average, sixth in the AFC and trailing the Browns’ Cribbs, who was third (11.4). Edelman’s 12 kickoffs weren’t enough to qualify for the league list, although he averaged 23.7 yards.
Edelman holds the franchise record for the highest single-season, punt-return average of 15.3 yards, which he set in 2010, when he led the AFC and finished second in the NFL behind the Chicago Bears’ Devin Hester. Boosting that average was a team-record 94-yard punt return for a score in the regular-season finale against Miami.
But on Nov. 13 against the New York Jets, Edelman also began playing defensive back. He’s following in the footsteps of Brown, a former Patriots wide receiver who made the same contribution during New England’s Super Bowl run in 2004.
In last Sunday’s AFC Championship victory over the Baltimore Ravens, Edelman found himself trying to cover receiver Anquan Boldin man-to-man on the Ravens’ final drive. Edelman made one play, but Boldin caught four passes for 59 yards as the Ravens moved into position for Billy Cundiff’s game-tying 32-yard field goal attempt, which Cundiff missed with 11 seconds left.
Playing in the slot, Edelman said he wasn’t overwhelmed by the enormity of his challenge defending Boldin.
“I never really thought of it,” Edelman told the Providence Journal on Monday. “You really can’t think of it like that. If you do, he’ll run right by you or you won’t be doing your job.”
Edelman could draw a tougher assignment against the Giants in slot receiver Victor Cruz. In his breakout season, Cruz finished ninth in the league in receiving with 82 catches for 1,536 yards and nine touchdowns. Six of Cruz’s eight 100-yard games (including the postseason) came after the Giants defeated the Patriots 24-20 on Nov. 6 in Foxborough, Mass.
Similar to Vrabel
What the Patriots have done with Edelman is not out of character for coach Bill Belichick.
In 2001, he signed free-agent linebacker Mike Vrabel, an Akron native who never reached his potential with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Vrabel showed his versatility playing inside and outside and recorded 48 of his 57 career sacks for the Patriots. But he was also used at tight end in goal-line situations and finished his career with 12 receptions, all for touchdowns, including two in the Super Bowl.
In 2004, Belichick, who was aided by defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel and defensive backs coach Eric Mangini, converted Brown to defensive back. Brown finished with three interceptions, tying for second on the team, as the Patriots won their third Super Bowl in a span of four years.
When Edelman was asked to play defense, he didn’t seem fazed by the switch.
“We were a little thin, and coach Belichick asked me to do it,” Edelman told the Boston Herald on Nov. 21. The Patriots were not able to accommodate an interview request for Edelman last week. “You're not going to say no to an opportunity.”
Belichick praises Edelman
Belichick said Edelman’s dual role was precipitated largely by injuries, but that Edelman’s athleticism has made it work.
“Julian has those skills to be able to compete at that position for the same reasons he can do that on offense,” Belichick said Thursday. “He’s strong, he’s quick, he’s got good toughness, he’s got good lateral quickness and change of direction. [Some of what] you want for the defender to cover that receiver are the same things that make him a competitive slot receiver.”
This season, the Patriots also used receiver Matthew Slater on defense when safety Patrick Chung was sidelined with a foot injury. In a conference call Jan. 17, Patriots defensive backs coach Josh Boyer praised the two-way talents of Edelman and Slater.
“With those guys being on the offensive side of the ball, they understand route concepts and what offenses are trying to do,” Boyer said. “From a technique standpoint, a lot of things that we do are a little bit different from the offensive perspective, so that takes a little bit of time. Both of those guys have been excellent. They work hard at it.”
Edelman’s contributions on defense could be seen as redemption after he was arrested on a charge of indecent assault and battery for allegedly groping a woman at a Halloween party at a Boston bar.
He pleaded not guilty, and the charges were dropped in December.
Since his arrest, Edelman has ingratiated himself to Belichick with his versatility. Now Edelman can help quarterback Tom Brady and the Patriots avenge a Super Bowl XLII loss to quarterback Eli Manning and the Giants.
“I remember the Patriots lost; I remember that catch,” Edelman said last week of the ball the Giants’ David Tyree miraculously trapped against his helmet four years ago. “I was going for the Patriots. I’m not even going to lie. Brady is from a town [San Mateo] next to me. I grew up rooting for him.”
Edelman was well aware of that tough day in Patriots lore, along with the contributions of Brown, who served as an honorary captain for last week’s AFC Championship Game.
“I know Troy Brown pretty well; I’ve talked to him a couple times,” Edelman said in November. “He’s a stud. He’s done everything; he’s like a Swiss Army knife.”
Now in Edelman the Patriots have another multipurpose “knife” who hopes to carve his own slice of history.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at http://marla.ohio.com/. Follow her on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/MarlaRidenour.