It is theme week at SB Nation, honoring the great underdogs in sports. Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman is one of them, and with him turning 34 today, we thought it would be a good time to take a look at his own underdog tale.
Guys like Julian Edelman don’t come around often. Tough, determined, leader, you name it, No. 11 does it all. However, as you all know by now, it’s never been easy for the New England Patriots’ number one wide receiver. Edelman’s rise to becoming one of the most important pieces in the league’s most well-run organization came as a shock to many, because an NFL career was never supposed to be in the cards for him.
Following high school, Edelman joined the College of San Mateo, a junior college in the San Francisco Bay Area, where he served as a dual-threat quarterback and threw for 1,312 yards with 14 touchdowns while also rushing for a school-record 1,253 yards and 17 more scores. However, his production was not enough to garner attention from Division-1 programs until a small school about 30 miles from Cleveland came knocking: Kent State.
At Kent State, Edelman took over the starting quarterback position for the next three seasons and despite being deemed undersized for the position at 5-foot-10, did what he does best — he made things happen. Although arm talent was never his best trait (he had a 30:31 touchdown-to-interception ratio over three years), his coaching staff knew he had what it took to land on an NFL roster.
Prior to his senior year with the Golden Flashes, he was showcased on special teams to help draw attention from NFL teams and who else but the Patriots, who have shown a knack for eyeing talent like Edelman, were the team that had the most interest in him. During his senior season, he went on to break the school’s single season rushing record with 1,370 yards while averaging 6.3 yards per carry.
Edelman knew that if he wanted to continue to play quarterback his likely route would be the Canadian Football League so he attempted to make the switch to wide receiver in the spring following his senior campaign at Kent State.
Despite not being invited to the 2009 NFL scouting combine, Edelman was able to turn some heads to position himself in order to be selected in one of the later rounds of the draft or maybe get signed as an unselected free agent following the event. He ran the 20-yard shuttle in 3.92 seconds, for example, beating the fastest time by a combine athlete of 3.96.
That was enough for Patriots Director of Player Personnel Nick Caserio to view Edelman as a legitimate offensive threat and the team selected him late in the seventh round in the 2009 NFL Draft.
“I don’t know what position you’re going to play, but you can play football. We’ll see you at camp.”
That was all Julian Edelman had to hear from one of sports’ most successful coaches, Bill Belichick.
When Edelman arrived in New England in the summer of 2009, he was in a wide receiver room with all-time greats Randy Moss and Wes Welker, and had to make the team in some role outside of receiver due to the crowded, veteran heavy group ahead of him on the depth chart. He was able to do that in the kicking game, when he unleashed a punt return in the preseason versus the Philadelphia Eagles as a rookie and had his own “Wally Pip” moment with Wes Welker. (For those wondering, Belichick famously turned right to Welker and compared Edelman to Wally Pip, who played first base before Lou Gehrig.)
Legendary Patriots play-by-play announcer Gil Santos got the same impression on the play: “This is Wes Welker in progress.”
However, Edelman had to wait until he would finally get his shot at the wide receiver position: Welker was at the peak of his powers and the re-acquisition of former Patriot Deion Branch stalled his chances to contribute at the position. Instead, he served as a sponge around the veteran wideouts at his position the first few years of his career and polished his route running skills and understanding of the Patriots’ offensive scheme.
It all started to pay off in 2013.
Following the 2012 season, and with Welker a free agent due for a big pay day — he had hauled in 672 passes for 7,459 yards and 37 touchdowns over his six-year career with the Patriots — Edelman was a candidate to take over when the veteran pass catcher went on to sign a two-year, $12 million dollar contract with the conference rival Denver Broncos. Many questioned the decision to let Welker walk with how much success he brought to the offense in that slot receiver spot in the Patriots offense.
However, Belichick and his staff had a plan all along: Danny Amendola.
With Welker on his way out, the Patriots signed Amendola in free agency. However, they also decided to bring Edelman back on a one-year deal to help fill Welker’s spot in the offense. The rest is history.
With Amendola injuring his hip during the season opener against the Buffalo Bills, Edelman stepped up right away and proved he could play the position. In 2013, he caught 105 balls for 1,056 yards as well as a career-high six touchdowns while also providing a spark as the team’s primary punt returner.
Edelman followed that up with a 2014 season that was capped off with several key plays and ultimately the game-winning touchdown in Super Bowl XLIX, New England fourth title and first in nine years. Along the way, the former college quarterback quickly became Tom Brady’s security blanket and whenever the going got tough, No. 12 always looked No. 11’s way.
After missing several games in 2015 due to a foot injury, Edelman bounced back in 2016 and hauled in 98 passes for 1,106 yards while once again proving that he can be counted on when things get difficult. Just look at New England’s iconic comeback in Super Bowl LI, when he made one of the best catches in league history to help the Patriots erase a 28-3 deficit to eventually lift their fifth Vince Lombardi Trophy.
After tearing his ACL in the pre-season ahead of the 2017 season and a crushing Super Bowl loss that he was unable to contribute in, Edelman approached the 2018 season with a vengeance. However, adversity would test him again after he tested positive for a banned substance and was suspended the first four games of the 2018 season.
Edelman picked up right where he left off, though, and proved that clutch was always in his veins. During New England’s run to a sixth Super Bowl title, the veteran receiver caught 22 passes for 388 yards and 22 first downs, and was named the title game’s most valuable player after cooking the Los Angeles Rams defense for 10 catches and 159 yards.
As Julian Edelman enters his 11th NFL season, he has 577 receptions for 6,507 yards and 36 touchdowns on his résumé, is currently the only wide receiver in NFL history with three 20+ catch postseasons, and is making a case for himself to have a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame — one of the biggest honors in the sport.
With a new era of Patriots football on the horizon following Tom Brady’s offseason departure, the seventh-round college quarterback is now one of the franchise’s faces and a poster child for the Patriot Way.
Chase your dreams, kids.