Laird: Welcome to Julian Edelman's big year

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It’s JE-11, the man struggling to emerge from the TB-12 shadows.

Sure, Cam Newton has some big things to prove, primarily that he’s healthy enough to attempt a second act to his career. But if he retired tomorrow Newton would always have on his resume a college football National Championship, an NFL MVP, and a record for the most rushing scores from the position by a QB in league history. Plus, Newton would hold the reputation of a mold-breaking 6-foot-5 quarterback, an athletic freak of nature the likes of which football had never quite seen before.

If Julian Edelman retired tomorrow, he’d be viewed by many as a system receiver with Tom Brady as the system in question. 

Edelman’s current rep to some: A good-but-not-great receiver and return man, a plucky underdog groomed to overachieving thanks to being drafted into a building housing the quarterback and coaching GOATs.

Is that fair? Maybe not.

A quick YouTube of Edelman’s highlight makes me feel ridiculous to have just typed the words system receiver. He was a central part of some of the most iconic moments in Pats' history, including his fourth-quarter concussion (Kam Chancellor delivered) catch in Super Bowl XLIX, and arguably the greatest catch in Super Bowl history with his gravity-defying Robert Alford deflection snag late in the SBLI comeback against Atlanta.

Edelman’s big-game credentials are impeccable: he’s a three-time Super Bowl champion and a Super Bowl MVP with 118 catches in 19 playoff games. He’s quite simply one of the most productive playoff receivers ever.

On top of that, it’s hard to fluke your way to four seasons of 90-plus catches in the regular season.

But ... the slot receiver who preceded Edelman - Wes Welker - put up even better such numbers in the same scheme. And even despite his post-Pats success while playing with Denver, Welker is still referenced as a player who was made by Brady. 

To break free of those same chains of doubters, Edelman needs one or two more bangers, as the kids say. A couple of 100-catch seasons as the new face of the franchise would do it, leading the way as post-Brady life begins in Foxboro. Being the shining star of a new era of success with a totally different offensive scheme around him. A team leader as the longest-tenured offensive player. Being Newton’s wingman, a man unleashed from being just Brady’s pet.

It won’t be easily done. 

Welker’s run ended at age 34, where Edelman currently resides. Slot receivers might be able to fight off father time longer than other wideouts, but not that much longer. Jerry Rice and Larry Fitzgerald seem to be anomalies. But then again, those are slam-dunk Hall of Famers and the unexpected is now what it will take if Edelman wants his legacy to reach a new level.

Edelman isn’t in the HOF discussion right now. The career-long Pro Bowl snub kills the case outright. Edelman didn’t even crack the latest NFL Top-100 players list after a 100-catch 2019, so he’s still not thought of as one of the league’s elite.

It’s hard to argue the latter for 2019, as two of the season’s most critical plays slipped thru Edelman’s hands: a third-quarter fumble against the Ravens as the 8-0 Pats were driving to take a lead, and a dropped 2nd-and-6 pass with 3:22 left in the AFC Divisional Round loss to the Titans in a one-point game. A catch there gives The Dynasty continued life, and probably a late lead via field goal.

Edelman didn’t end the Brady era, but he certainly could have helped along to a better storybook finish. Now, Edelman is on to starting his new book.

He described it this way in his opening comments of the 2020 season, saying: “You’ve got to move on. This is a business and you wish [Brady] well. And that is when you instantly start thinking about what you have to do for yourself to go out and contribute and help the team for the upcoming year. I love him to death, but the train keeps moving as it will when I am not playing here or something.”

Moving on is made all the more difficult when the train requires masks and social distancing. The NFL’s COVID year would seem to favor familiar combinations, not new connections that are learning on the fly. 

And Newton’s previous offenses never seemed to feature slot weapons the way Brady’s did. Big targets like Kelvin Benjamin and Devin Funchess were fed the football, and tight end Greg Olsen had three straight 1,000 yard seasons with Cam at QB. Running back Christian McCaffrey topped Newton’s target leaderboard in 2017 and 2018.

As such, I have my doubts that Edelman crushes the narrative in 2020. Put me down for a 50-catch season on 75 targets, or about half as many as last year. I see Newton feeding N’Keal Harry - the future for Josh McDaniels - along with his backs and tight ends much more that Brady did in 2019.

If I’m wrong, this column will be more fuel for Edelman’s fire to burn up the misconception: Edelman couldn’t have done it without Brady. He was a product of the system and his best days are behind him.