As the New England Patriots prepare to hold their first full-pads practice of the summer later today, Julian Edelman enters familiar territory. The veteran wide receiver is in his 12th training camp since arriving in New England via the seventh round of the draft in 2009, and knows the ins and outs of camp and the Patriots’ offensive playbook as well as anybody.
That said, 2020 is a year of change for the organization and the league as a whole — and Edelman will also have to work through it.
Not only did the Coronavirus pandemic change how teams operate this year and prepare for a regular season that gets kicked off in not even a month, the Patriots in particular will have to adjust after losing their long-time quarterback in free agency. With Tom Brady now playing for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the team has to find a new passer to lead the offense and simultaneously also fill the leadership void that the future Hall of Famer’s departure created within the unit.
Although not a quarterback — at least at the NFL level and disregarding the occasional trick play — Edelman will play a big part in this process. The 34-year-old is the most experienced true wideout on the roster, after all, and the second most seasoned player on the team behind special teams captain Matthew Slater. Naturally, his veteran leadership will be pivotal not just for his position group but for the team’s new-look offensive attack as a whole.
“What I can do is worry about myself, the guys that are playing my position, the receiver room... just try to lead by example and let guys know and correct guys — be a guy that you can ask questions to,” Edelman recently said about his leadership during a media conference call. “Mainly worrying about myself, because that’s kind of our thing around here: worry about yourself, do your job.
“We’ve got a bunch of coaches that have been doing this for a long time. It’s their job to get the guys going, but if someone needs a question to be answered, and if I know it, I’m certainly going to help to the best of my ability and worry about the guys in my room,” the MVP of Super Bowl 53 continued. “That’s what I’m going to try to do, and that’s what I’ve tried to do in the past, and I’ll continue trying to do in the future.”
While Edelman has been a constant among the Patriots’ wide receivers ever since he earned a starting spot in 2013, the rest of the position group lacks experience within New England’s notoriously challenging scheme. With the exception of the aforementioned Matthew Slater, who has caught one regular season pass in his career and is really a wide receiver in name only, Edelman is the only receiver who has been in the system before last offseason.
N’Keal Harry, Jakobi Meyers and Gunner Olszewski joined the team during last year’s draft, with Mohamed Sanu and Devin Ross joining the team midway through the season via trade and practice squad, respectively. The other wideouts on the roster — veteran Damiere Byrd; rookies Jeff Thomas, Isaiah Zuber, Will Hastings — all arrived this offseason.
Edelman, meanwhile, is the elder statesman in the room.
“I think just being someone you can ask questions to, trying to make people familiar that are new to this place with how we do things, route-running techniques and all those things that I’ve worked on for years, trying to explain those to guys,” he said about his approach to leadership.
“I’m also learning as well. There’s a lot of things that we bring in that I have to learn. Every year there’s always something new — something this, something that — and if I go out and try to lead by example how to prepare myself, take care of my body, prepare myself mentally for the day, take things from the classroom to the walkthrough and eventually the practice, and just try to be a professional, that’s the best I can do. So, it’s what I’ll try to do.”
One of the players who will try to get up to speed under Edelman’s tutelage is Damiere Byrd. The 27-year-old arrived in New England earlier this offseason on a one-year free agency contract, and is projected to compete for a spot on the roster as a perimeter receiver. While offering a different skillset as the long-time Patriot, Byrd acknowledged his role as a leader within the wide receiver room.
“Julian has been around here for years, he’s done it well for a long time. People like that, you have to follow around and really take heed to what they’re doing and what they’re saying,” Byrd said last week. “They don’t necessarily have to speak all the time, you just follow their actions and learn as you go. I think he’s definitely a leader in our room, and we’re all trying to be our best and move forward playing the best ball that we can play.”
As for Edelman himself, he is well aware of his status as a team leader in what is a summer of change and adjustment.
“That’s what this season’s going to be about: adjusting and overcoming certain situations that everyone’s having to deal with,” he said. “We have a long road ahead of us, but if we just keep on bringing our hard hat and lunchpail to work, and come in here with a purpose, it is usually when good things happen. That’s what I’m trying to do.”