The New England Patriots needed a receiver to step up once TE Rob Gronkowski suffered a season-ending back injury. Whether it was a wide receiver or a tight end, someone would have to pick up the slack as a receiver.
Enter Julian Edelman.
No receiver was more productive over the final eight games of the NFL season than Edelman, who led all wide receivers and tight ends with 766 yards from scrimmage. Edelman saw 97 targets over that time, far ahead of 2nd ranked Giants WR Odell Beckham Jr. (89) and 3rd ranked Broncos WR Demaryius Thomas (80). Edelman’s 748 receiving yards tied Packers WR Jordy Nelson for the most over that time, and his 57 receptions tied Beckham Jr. and trailed only Nelson’s 59.
Edelman struggled with his surgically repaired foot early in the season, but turned a corner after the bye week. Prior to the bye week, Edelman averaged 7.8 targets per game; after the bye week his usage spiked to 12.1 targets per game. Edelman has averaged 95.8 yards per game over the past eight weeks, which is in line with his best stretches pre-foot injury.
“Julian has always worked extremely hard,” Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said on Monday. “He cares deeply about helping our team win...he’s done everything we’ve asked him to do in terms of his role on offense. He’s been a really productive player for us.”
The Patriots are also keeping a trick up their sleeve: they haven’t used Edelman in the red zone. Edelman has just 15 red zone targets and 2 receptions inside the 10 yard line, his lowest amrks since becoming a starter in 2013. Don’t be surprised if Edelman stops running fade routes and starts running higher percentage plays like whip routes or slant patterns in the playoffs.
The Patriots should have Danny Amendola and Malcolm Mitchell back in the divisional round, to go along with Martellus Bennett, Chris Hogan, LeGarrette Blount, James White, and Dion Lewis. Every player mentioned is capable of cracking the defense. But no one has stepped up in the absence of Gronkowski as much as Edelman has, and the Patriots will need three more great performances from Edelman this year.