By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Through two separate runs to three Super Bowl titles, the most important player for the New England Patriots has quite obviously been Tom Brady. On that, there is no debate.
But who’s No. 2? Whether it was the three Super Bowls in four years in the early 2000s, or the more recent three Super Bowls and four appearances in five years, who has been the second-best player sporting Patriots gear on the field?
It’s a question that could have many answers. Very few could be considered wrong. From Rob Gronkowski, Troy Brown and Julian Edelman on offense, to Ty Law, Tedy Bruschi, Willie McGinest, Dont’a Hightower, Vince Wilfork, Mike Vrabel, Rodney Harrison, Richard Seymour and Devin McCourty on defense, the answer may come down to personal preference, or particular memories. Disagree all you’d like, but there are many cases to be made.
Now, though, equipped with a new contract extension that will keep him in Foxboro through 2021, Edelman has the opportunity to make the answer a clear-cut, no-doubt-about-it choice.
In a matter of a few years, it can be Tom Brady, then Julian Edelman, and then everybody else.
That may have sounded absolutely crazy as recently as two years ago. It may sound absolutely crazy right now. But looking at everything Edelman has already accomplished, it would be difficult to make the case for anybody else if he’s able to add to that already-stacked resume.
Consider that Edelman has already won three Super Bowls, putting him on an already-short list of Patriots. Then consider that at no point in any of those Super Bowl runs was Edelman merely a passenger. Edelman was an absolute driver on those runs, not only accumulating stats but also authoring moments that will live forever in Patriots lore.
In the 2014 postseason, he threw a touchdown pass to Danny Amendola in a game against the Ravens where he also caught eight passes for 74 yards. He had 98 receiving yards and a 12-yard rush in the championship game a week later. In the Super Bowl, he hung on to a pass over the middle despite getting walloped by Kam Chancellor to convert a third-and-14 on a critical touchdown drive in the fourth quarter against the NFL’s No. 1 defense. He’d later catch the game-winning touchdown, one of his nine receptions for 107 yards on the evening.
Edelman also averaged 15.9 yards on nine punt returns in that postseason.
Two years later, Edelman’s postseason looked like this:
DIV. ROUND VS. HOUSTON: 8 rec., 137 yards; 1 rush, 12 yards
CONF. CHAMPIONSHIP VS. PITTSBURGH: 8 rec., 118 yards, 1 TD
SUPER BOWL VS. ATLANTA: 5 rec., 87 yards; 3 punt returns, 40 yards
And as a reminder that not all catches are created equal, one of those five in the Super Bowl was this one:
Edelman missed the entirety of the following season due to a torn ACL, and the Patriots lost Super Bowl LII to the Eagles. To say the Patriots lost that game due to a lack of Edelman would be disingenuous at best; the Patriots scored 33 points and generated 613 yards of offense. Though, perhaps Edelman could have helped out in the secondary, as he did in the 2011 AFC Championship Game against Baltimore.
And after missing the first four games of the 2018 season because of a PED suspension, Edelman had a career year. He kept that rolling right into the playoffs.
DIV. ROUND VS. CHARGERS: 9 rec., 151 yards; 1 rush, 7 yards;
CONF. CHAMPIONSHIP AT CHIEFS: 7 rec. 96 yards; 3 punt returns, 38 yards
SUPER BOWL VS. RAMS: 10 rec., 141 yards; Super Bowl MVP
Edelman was not the only reason the Patriots won those three Super Bowls, but he was a major reason for each of them. In all three title runs, he was one of the three or four most important players on the team. Nobody else, aside from Brady, can really make that same claim. (That’s in the non-kicker division, of course. And the likes of Vrabel, Hightower, Danny Amendola, Patrick Chung and Devin McCourty are not too distant in the conversation.)
The Super Bowl LIII performance was cemented in history with the game’s MVP award, but he was equally instrumental in the conference title game, when he twice made receptions to convert third-and-10’s in overtime.
By that point, discussion of Edelman warranting consideration for the Pro Football Hall of Fame had caught quite a bit of national steam. (A movement that may or may not have started here, by the way.) Ranking second behind only Jerry Rice in both playoff receptions and playoff receiving yards will have that kind of effect.
Yet what got overlooked or disregarded in the Hall of Fame debate is that Edelman is not done building his case. And that applies both to his place in football history and his place in Patriots history.
Edelman currently ranks fifth in Patriots history with 499 receptions; if he makes 80 receptions in 2019 (he’s averaged 86 over his past five seasons), then he’ll move up into second place. Edelman needs just two productive seasons to move into the top spot, passing Wes Welker and his 672 receptions.
In terms of receiving yards, Edelman’s got a bit of a steeper climb. He’s currently seventh in franchise history with 5,390 receiving yards. From an optimistic viewpoint, if he maintains his five-year average of 935 yards, he’ll climb past Ben Coates and Irving Fryar to take the fifth spot after next season, and then pass Troy Brown for fourth the following season, and then have a chance to move past Welker and Gronkowski for the No. 2 spot in Patriots franchise history. (Stanley Morgan’s 10,352 yards, which has him ranked 40th in NFL history, will not be touched.)
That is, as noted, an optimistic viewpoint, but it’s not unrealistic. That five-year average includes 2015, when Edelman was limited to nine games, and 2018, when Edelman only played 12 games.
And as already stated, Edelman’s postseason resume is one of the best for any receiver in the history of the sport. It’s been an incredible showing thus far, but it also might not be over.
If Edelman can help the Patriots win a fourth Super Bowl, then it’s a wrap. Forget about it. Tom Brady, Julian Edelman, and then everybody else. Period. Conversation over.
But even if the Patriots don’t win a Super Bowl before Edelman’s contract ends following the 2021 season, it’s very easy to envision a scenario where he continues to contribute in a tremendous way to Brady’s offense, adding to his tremendous numbers — numbers which really didn’t even begin to accumulate until his fifth NFL season.
And if you factor in the little “Prototypical Patriot” parts of Edelman’s story — a college quarterback drafted 232nd overall, part-time offensive player-turned offensive focal point, willing to play defense and perform well, one of the best punt returners in NFL history, largely underpaid, unwavering toughness, dedication to blocking, etc. — you’ve really got it all. You’ve got the stats, you’ve got the story.
And if it keeps up for another two or three years, you’ll have the second-most important player for the Patriots during the most successful 20-plus-year run for any football franchise in history.