ESPN's Mel Kiper generated waves with his recent re-mock of the 2009 NFL draft, where two Patriots were featured in the top 10. Right tackle Sebastian Vollmer was sent to Green Bay at 9th overall. Wide receiver Julian Edelman went to Seattle at 4th overall.
In his justification for Edelman going 4th overall, Kiper quotes an NFL general manager who calls Edelman "the toughest cover in the NFL right now."
That's some crazy praise.
Edelman, as we all know, is a converted quarterback from Kent State that the Patriots selected in the 7th round. He made his way up the ranks in New England as a punt returner and as Wes Welker's back-up. Once Welker left for Denver, Edelman had a clear shot in the starting line-up and managed to beat out Danny Amendola to become Tom Brady's favorite target. He's been one of the most productive receivers over the past two seasons. The fact that he's on a bargain of a contract only adds to his value.
The term "toughest cover" can mean two different things and that spawns some great debate. On one hand, it could mean that Edelman is considered the best receiver in the league because he's the toughest to cover. On the other, it could just mean that for a defensive back in coverage, Edelman presents the toughest skill set to cover, even if he's not the most dangerous receiver in the league.
When it comes to talks about the best receiver in the league, Edelman is never considered. He's probably not in the top 15 of most conversations. Calvin Johnson, Demaryius Thomas, Dez Bryant, Antonio Brown, Jordy Nelson, Julio Jones, and A.J. Green are the prototypical #1 receivers, while others like DeSean Jackson, T.Y. Hilton, Golden Tate, Emmanuel Sanders, Jeremy Maclin, Alshon Jeffery, and Brandon Marshall could be in that same category. This is also ignoring younger players like Odell Beckham Jr. and DeAndre Hopkins. Heck, Randall Cobb plays a similar role to Edelman and has more production.
Additionally, this "toughest cover" isn't specifically wide receiver alone, which means that Edelman is topping Rob Gronkowski, Jimmy Graham, and all of the other tight ends in the league.
All of those players could be considered better receivers when looking through the traditional lens of what a receiver is supposed to be. They're supposed to be big, they're supposed to be fast, they're supposed to make big plays down the field, and they're supposed to dominate the opposing cornerbacks. It's difficult to say that Edelman is better than any of these receivers outright.
But what if we add some context? What receiver would be the toughest to cover with 20 seconds to go, down by 6, needing sixty yards for a touchdown? If you choose Dez or Demaryius or T.Y., they're all probably a better fit than Edelman.
But if you need to covert on 3rd and 14? Or 4th and short? I don't think there's a receiver better suited to shake quick coverage to squeeze their way for a first down.
And that's where the second argument comes into play: if we're not talking best wide receiver, but instead asking which receiver is the toughest for a cornerback to cover, is there any better than Edelman?
Edelman doesn't run the deep route as often as any of the other receivers because that's not his skill set. But is it easier for a cornerback to cover a go route than to cover the option route from Edelman? It's possible. Edelman's catch rate was 2nd in the league for receivers with 100+ targets at 74.2%, and the #1 receiver (rookie Jarvis Landry) spent nearly twice as much time in the slot, where catch rates are always higher.
The difficulty of covering Edelman stems from his otherworldly connection with Tom Brady, and that is where the argument has legs. The Patriots receivers must react to the defense in the same way as Brady, so both quarterback and receiver decipher the defense in the same manner. The receiver's route will adjust based upon the defense ("option routes"), which makes it even more difficult for the defender.
Edelman, in a vacuum, might not be the toughest to cover in the whole league. But when you put him in the Patriots offense, with Brady at quarterback, and the option routes they run, there might not be a player more difficult for a cornerback to defend.
No, Julian won't be setting yardage records. No, he isn't cut from the same athletic cloth as Dez or Calvin or Jordy. But when the game is on the line, and you need a receiver to generate some separation to convert a first down, is there anyone you'd rather have over Edelman?
Even if he's not the toughest receiver to cover, he's absolutely one of the toughest.