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Julian Edelman Injury: What It Means for the Patriots

What, New England worry? In Edelman’s absence, the Patriots will adjust the roles in their deep pass-catching corps and get by fine, just as they have so many times before

I was soliciting opinions from rival coaches and execs on Saturday morning on exactly what Julian Edelman’s injury means for a loaded Patriots team, and there was one text that pretty much summarized how all the respondents felt.

“How’s Tom? “

Tom, of course, is Tom Brady, and Brady—by the looks of last night—is just fine. Now on the doorstep of his 18th NFL season, the quadragenarian quarterback went 12-of-14 for 174 yards and two touchdowns, before throwing a pick just before halftime of last night’s preseason game in Detroit and retreating to the sideline for good.

We’ve been here before. The Patriots have been here before.

Now, that’s not to say Edelman’s injury—initial tests indicated Saturday’s MRI will confirm a season-ending torn ACL—is not a big deal. It is. Edelman’s now twice been a Super Bowl hero, and his catches in both big games (one while absorbing a kill shot from Kam Chancellor and the other last year’s circus act) show his value. Brady trusts him to come away with the ball in the tightest spots and on the biggest stages.

It is to emphasize that the Patriots a) deal with injuries as well as any team in football and b) are positioned well from a roster standpoint to handle this one.

It’s also to say those responses I got Saturday all pretty much sounded the same.

One AFC defensive coach texted, “They’ll find another way to do it. So initially, [it’ll hurt them] some, but in the end not much at all.” And another: “[Danny] Amendola will have to stay healthy and pick up the slack. It won’t be easy, but they’ll make it work.” And here’s an AFC exec who’s studied the Patriots exetensive this summer: “Health of others is key. Amendola and [Rob Gronkowski] need to stay healthy, but their offense is diverse enough to pick it up.”

So if we’re going to break this one down, it has to be through the layers of how the Patriots will handle it, rather than how it will sink them. First off are the immediate issues it creates for the team.

Primarily, New England gets hit on third down, and on punt returns.

The former point can be illustrated with recent statistical evidence. In the first nine games of  games of 2015, the Patriots converted 88 of their 215 third-down attempts (40.9 percent) and went 9-0. Then they lost Edelman for the final seven games of the season with a broken foot. New England went 32 of 100 (32 percent) on third down in those games, going 3-4 over that stretch.

The punt-return issue is more complex. Edelman has proved to be both the team’s most reliable and most explosive punt returner over the years, available for a spark or if another returner is struggling in handling the ball. With Edelman out, New England has to decide if it’ll use Amendola and put more miles on his body with a bigger offensive role expected, or roll with Cyrus Jones, whose punt returns were an adventure in ’16.

And that brings us to the second layer, which is not so how the Patriots will manage September, but how they’ll look different in November and December. The void Edelman leaves is best brought to life by two plays from Friday night’s game, points that were raised to me by someone who knows well how Brady and Edelman operate together and the advantage they have built.

The first came on the third play from scrimmage. The Lions were late to line up, and Edelman was uncovered. Brady and Edelman both recognized it. Brady quickly snapped the ball and got it out to Edelman, who rumbled ahead for 23 yards.

Two plays later, on second-and-3, Edelman was in the left slot and ran straight at Detroit rookie Jarrad Davis, forcing him to make a choice of playing him inside or outside. Davis turned his hips to the sideline, Edelman broke inside, and Brady dumped the ball him two yards clear of the line of scrimmage. Edelman broke into the secondary for 18 yards.

That was a vintage New England option route, once mastered by Troy Brown and passed down to Wes Welker and now Edelman, the kind of play that made the slot a Cadillac position in the Patriots’ offense. That, also, was the play that ended with Edelman’s right knee buckling.

The edge Brady and Edelman have as a quarterback-receiver pair is tough to replace. Brady has a similar rapport with Gronkowski and Amendola, but both of them have injury history and have been managed accordingly in recent years. So putting more on those two is simultaneously the easy answer and one that could compound the problem.

More likely, New England will do what it normally does, and that is to play to the larger group’s strengths rather than becoming overly reliant on one or two guys. Among the running backs, Rex Burkhead is versatile enough to have had the Bengals coaches, at one point, toying with the idea of switching him to slot receiver. Mike Gillislee similarly can stay on the field and play multiple spots on third down. Super Bowl hero James White is seen internally almost as much receiver as he is tailback.

And then there are receivers Brandin Cooks and Chris Hogan on the outside, and rising sophomore Malcolm Mitchell with the ability to play in the slot (though he was primarily outside as a rookie). Newly arrived veteran Dwayne Allen is a strong blocking option at tight end should the staff want to move Gronkowski around even more.

We’ll see how it all plays out, and how the identity of the offense and the receiver room—one that the undeniably tough, competitive and football smart Edelman personified—evolves. There’s plenty of work to be done, to be sure. But there was last year, too, after Rob Gronkowski suffered a season-ending back injury. And New England won the Super Bowl.

Harsh as it sounds, the safe bet here is that the Patriots will figure this out, just as they did in 2016, and just as they have in so many other cases.

So … How’s Tom? He’s good, and his team probably will be too.

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