COMMENTARY | The receiving corps of the New England Patriots have more questions entering the upcoming season than they've had in recent memory. Amid a group of new faces and those fighting injuries, veteran wide receiver Julian Edelman could have a golden opportunity for a breakout season.
A lot has changed since last season when quarterback Tom Brady threw for 4,827 yards and 34 touchdowns. Thanks to a busy and often trying offseason, the depth chart of his arsenal looks very different than it did a year ago.
Receiver Wes Welker, who averaged 112 receptions per season during the past six years for the Patriots, left and signed a free-agent deal with the Denver Broncos. Additionally, fellow veteran receivers Brandon Lloyd and Deion Branch were not retained by the team.
The tight end situation is also a mess. Aaron Hernandez was arrested on charges of murder and quickly released. Meanwhile, Rob Gronkowski has undergone a series of offseason surgeries and will start training camp on the PUP list, and may or may not be ready for the start of the regular season.
All of the turnover and uncertainty could equate to big opportunity for Edelman.
One starting receiver position is all but locked up by Danny Amendola, who was the team's major acquisition this winter. The second and third spots have veterans like Michael Jenkins and Donald Jones, and rookies Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce in competition, but Edelman shouldn't be counted out.
A college quarterback at Kent State, he was a seventh-round pick of the Patriots in 2009. He has never been a full-timer, with 13 starts in 48 career games under his belt, but he has produced when he has played. He has 69 receptions for 714 yards and four touchdowns in his four seasons, including 21 catches for 235 yards and three scores last year. Unfortunately, he has struggled with injuries that have hampered his development.
The 27-year-old profiles as a slot receiver because of his 5'10", 200-pound frame and lack of top-end speed, but trying to define him so narrowly would be a mistake. NFL.com's Gregg Rosenthal wrote that Edelman has lined up all over the field in the past because of Welker and the tight ends operating so frequently in the middle. In fact, all three of his 2012 touchdowns came on plays where he was lined up on the outside.
A free agent this offseason, Edelman hoped to land a long-term contract but ultimately came back to the Patriots on a one-year deal. Incredibly, he currently has the longest New England tenure of any receiver on the roster, and that familiarity with Brady and the offense could work to his benefit when the pecking order is determined.
Edelman is a virtual lock to make the team simply based on his prowess as a punt returner, where his career average of 13.2 yards-per-return is fourth all-time in NFL history. That statistic represents his talent to operate in open space, which translates well to the receiver position if the Patriots decide to expand his presence in that role.
Amendola is actually a similar player to Edelman in that he has slot receiver size, but can make plays all over the field because of dynamic athleticism. The Patriots could make Edelman a starter or have him on the field as the third receiver in three receiver sets. Either scenario gives them the potential to drive opposing defenses batty with their ability to be unpredictable with where they send their receivers.
Frequently using similar receivers like Amendola and Edelman on the field at the same time wouldn't be conventional, but neither are the Patriots. In the past their offense has depended on timing and mismatches. Featuring these two prominently in play packages could bring a whole new element to the playbook.
Edelman isn't flashy or a physical specimen but in New England he doesn't need to be. As long as he gets where he needs to be on the field and earns the trust of his quarterback, he will be seen as a major asset and could be looking at a big season in 2013.
In addition to the Yahoo! Contributor Network, Andrew Martin has written for Bleacher Report and a number of print publications and websites on the topics of history and sports. He also produces his own blog and has appeared on various sports talk shows and podcasts.
You can follow Andrew on Twitter @historianandrew.
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