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MAQB: Julian Edelman's Legacy in New England Is Both Unique and Secure

The Patriots' wide receiver had to work to find a role in the NFL, but ended up starring in three Super Bowl wins. Plus, the latest on Teddy Bridgewater, James Conner and Jadeveon Clowney on the market, Jeff Fisher's new advisory role and more.

Maybe it’s cliché to call him this, but when the Patriots couldn’t figure out quite what to do with Julian Edelman a decade ago, it was what he was, not what he wasn’t, that led Bill Belichick to keep the light on for him.

Edelman, who announced his retirement Monday, was a football player in the truest sense of the term.

Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, running back James Conner and recently retired wide receiver Julian Edelman

He arrived in Foxboro in 2009 as an undersized college quarterback looking for a job, even if no one was positive where it would be. Then-Patriot Midwest area scout Jim Nagy identified him during his last year at Kent State in the fall of 2008, and presented him to his colleagues as an interesting developmental returner/slot prospect at December and February draft meetings. Nagy left for Kansas City to join Scott Pioli after that year’s combine, but the Patriots stayed on Edelman from there.

Later in the spring, Nick Caserio, who replaced Pioli and had been the Patriots’ receivers coach in 2007, went to Ohio to put Edelman through a receiver/returner workout, and saw enough for New England to take him in the seventh round that April.

From there, Edelman battled injuries and fought through a position switch that was always going to take time. He stayed on the roster by doing everything else well. He covered kicks in the sort of chippy way that an annoyingly effective and intense defensive specialist in basketball would. He became the NFL’s best punt returner. And in 2011, when injuries hit and the Patriots’ defense cratered, he wound up playing slot … corner.

In that year’s Super Bowl loss to the Giants, he played offense, defense and special teams.

Even so, the idea of turning Edelman into Wes Welker’s heir in the slot dragged to the point where when Welker bolted in 2013, the Patriots gave Danny Amendola a five-year deal to be that guy. Edelman lingered on the market, flirted with the Giants, then signed a one-year prove-it deal. He followed that up with, finally, a breakout year on offense (105 catches), hit the market again and signed a four-year, $17 million deal.

From there, all he did was forever etch his name in the lore of the NFL’s greatest dynasty. He wound up with three 1,000-yard seasons, but that doesn’t come close to approximating his impact. He bounced back from a bone-crunching hit from Seahawks enforcer Kam Chancellor to score the game-winning touchdown in Super Bowl XLIX. He made the gravity-defying catch to spark the huge comeback in Super Bowl LI. He was Super Bowl LIII MVP.

He’s second all-time to Jerry Rice in playoff receptions (118) and receiving yards (1,442).

I don’t know if he’s a Hall of Famer. By regular season numbers, he’s not where the all-time greats are, or close to it. How much should playoff performance override that? Honestly, since I’m not on the selection committee or privy to how they do this, I’m not sure how to answer that—his case would essentially be the Lynn Swann case.

But I do think it should matter, as should all the other things Edelman did beyond just catching the ball, and what he meant to the 2.0 version of the Patriots’ dynasty.

What I do know is his legacy in New England is secure. And what a unique one it is.

And with that, some more notes for this Monday afternoon …

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• With Sam Darnold off the market, and any further football developments on the Deshaun Watson front seemingly on hold, Teddy Bridgewater would seem to be the next veteran up on the 2021 quarterback carousel. The Panthers have already tried to move him, and now he has the team’s permission to find a trade on his own. So why is a former first-round pick who’s been to the playoffs and is still south of 30 having such trouble finding a path out of Carolina? Follow the money, and you’ll find the answer. He’s due a $17 million base salary, with a $250,000 workout bonus and $750,000 in per-game roster bonuses, and $10 million of the base is fully guaranteed. Theoretically, the Panthers could cut him, but that would mean paying him $34 million (he made $24 million in 2020) for a single year of service (yes, there are offsets, but another team could just give him the minimum and let Carolina pick up the rest of the tab). That’s why, for the Panthers, the idea of keeping him and throwing him into a competition with Darnold isn’t bananas, when compared to the alternative, which would be paying a guy not to be on the team. The ideal conclusion for everyone, of course, would be a trade. And while I don’t think there’s a team out there that’ll pay him $18 million this year, Bridgewater might be able to find someone willing to give him more than $10 million. At that point, of course, the compensation coming back would be minimal. But, again, Carolina’s shown a willingness to work with Bridgewater on this.

• If this seems like a crash-and-burn from Bridgewater, well, it really hasn’t been. I’m not sure this result was off the board when Carolina signed him to a three-year, $63 million deal last year, or that there were many (any?) teams competing in that neighborhood for Bridgewater last year. And in asking around to teams that played against Bridgewater last year, it was clear why: They love a lot about Bridgewater as a person and player, but there’s a very real ceiling there. “Good player. Good decision maker. Plays it safe,” texted one such defensive coordinator. “Not going to take chances. Won’t win games for you, but surround him with talent and you can win with him.” An AFC exec added, via text, “Tough. Competitive. Inconsistent thrower—problems with vision and accuracy issues downfield.” And here’s another defensive coordinator: “When we played the Panthers, Bridgewater was really playing well, and he played good in our game. I was impressed with his command of checks, adjustments, etc.,” All of which tells me Bridgewater will be in a position to make good money for a while, maybe another decade, in the NFL—but probably won’t be put in position to be a team’s clear starter again.

• It was interesting hearing what Darnold told the Charlotte media on Monday about the process of being dealt, and how it played out the last three months: “I’m a planner, I like to have things planned out. And what the next step was going to be and just the uncertainty there was, for lack of a better term, driving me insane. When I found out, it was such a relief.” That right there is why Darnold is so well-liked. We didn’t hear anything from him. He continued to go about his business in California as the Jets went through their process of evaluating the draft quarterbacks. He had to watch seats in the game of QB musical chairs fill up. And he went about his business, and waited, and even when he cut open a vein on that conference call, he did it without throwing anyone under the bus. Bottom line, you’d be blind not see why people like Jets GM Joe Douglas have continued to speak so highly of him, even as he made for the exits.

• In digging around on the NFL/NFLPA negotiations over the offseason program, I found that one thing being discussed was the frequency of COVID-19 testing going forward. That wasn’t limited to, but included how things may change for a vaccinated player, and whether or not it was practical to keep testing everyone daily until they’ve been vaccinated. And I’d just say that cost isn’t a nonfactor on this. Sources say that all-in (infrastructure, staffing, individual tests, etc.), the NFL spent well into nine figures during the 2020 season (from camp through the Super Bowl) to conduct its daily testing program. Given that the league ended up playing all 256 regular season games in 17 weeks, and all 13 playoff games as they were scheduled, it’s fair to say the NFL’s handling of COVID-19 was a big success. And that’s another reason why it’s hard to nail down how the league and players should gradually detach from it.

• I’ll be honest: I didn’t realize James Conner was still sitting out there on the free-agent market. He’s visiting the Cardinals, in search of a deal, and at this stage of free agency it’s fair to guess he’s headed for a relatively cheap one-year deal regardless of where he lands. And that’s too bad. Here’s a guy who, obviously, overcame a lot to make it in the NFL, and was the lead back for a contender the last three years, helping ease the effects of the Steelers’ divorce with Le’Veon Bell. He’s rushed for 2,302 yards and 22 touchdowns, with more than 2,000 of the yards and all the touchdowns coming the last three years. He’s also caught 124 balls over those three years. He’s just 25. He’s a really good, not great, NFL tailback, and that, in today’s NFL, isn’t enough to get paid. Meanwhile, former first-round receivers like Nelson Agholor and Corey Davis who haven’t lived up to expectations got free-agent deals at eight figures per year. Why? Well, even if receivers are getting easier to find, it’s generally seen as incredibly simple to land a cost-controlled player at the tailback position who’s ready to play right away. Add that to the obvious wear-and-tear/shelf-life issue, and you can see why a team might ask why it would spend for Conner when it could get, say, Trey Sermon in the third round. And again, that sucks for guys like Conner. But it’s the reality of the NFL in 2021—only super special players at that position, guys like Todd Gurley, Zeke Elliott, Derrick Henry and Alvin Kamara, break the bank.

Titans outside linebacker Jadeveon Clowney

• The Browns are having Jadeveon Clowney in on Wednesday and, in a number of ways, this feels like a really good fit. With a fairly complete roster heading into the draft, the top two pieces left on Cleveland’s wish list would be a complementary pass-rusher, and a complementary corner, and this would very much check that first box and give the team a little added flexibility not to press a need on draft weekend. And to be sure, at this point of his career, Clowney is more of a complementary piece than the war daddy everyone anticipated he’d become coming out of South Carolina in 2014. “I would wonder how he sees himself. Whether he wants big playing time, is willing to rush inside at times or is willing to let others play off him,” said one NFC pro scouting director on Monday. “Has done a variety of things over his career in different schemes, probably best as a situational and complementary player at this point. Can be valuable in that role and still create matchup difficulties in protection if you move him. Still has ability to be disruptive with length and athletic ability. He never had 10 sacks nor is he a 16-game bell cow rusher at this point; that is not how to think of him, so his role and his acceptance of it are very important. He can be valuable if those are right.” Which is to say, if Clowney accepts that he can’t be the Browns’ Myles Garrett (they already have one of those) then playing with Myles Garrett could be really good for him. One other thing we should mention here: They’ll have to have a practice plan for him too, since he’s always been managed in that area.

• I mentioned the dynamic near the end of my Monday morning column where high-end corner prospects these days are more scarce and are often sons of NFL players—Patrick Surtain II, Jaycee Horn, Asante Samuel Jr. and Elijah Molden being prime examples. And I forgot to mention that perhaps the best prospect at the position in all of college football last year, LSU’s Derek Stingley Jr., would qualify as another one. His grandfather is late ex-Patriots receiver Darryl Stingley. And he’ll be draft-eligible a year from now.

• I love the addition of Jim Schwartz to Mike Vrabel’s staff in Tennessee. In my mind, it backstops the elevation of Shane Bowen to defensive coordinator, and Schwartz should also be valuable in helping the Titans shore up their primary weakness—that being the pass rush. Schwartz’s institutional knowledge of the organization from a decade spent on Jeff Fisher’s staff there (eight as defensive coordinator) is a nice bonus, too.

• While we’re there, I’m glad to see that Fisher’s getting back into football, taking on an advisory role with new Tennessee State coach Eddie George. I also think it shows an awareness from George that there’ll be a bit of a learning curve (to me, it’s sort of like Juwan Howard bringing ex-St. Joseph’s coach Phil Martelli aboard at Michigan after he took the hoops job there). George is super sharp, so I’m not surprised he’d make a move like this one. I did ask Fisher how his role would set up, and about getting to work with George again. “I’m super excited for him,” Fisher said, before adding that his role will be “just helping a bit behind the scenes.”

• In wake of the news that Britt Reid has been formally charged with felony DWI, here’s sending our prayers to Ariel Young and her family. Young was the 5-year-old injured in the February accident (Reid’s truck crashed into Young’s family’s parked car). The family’s attorney said last month that she suffered a devastating brain injury as a result of the incident and has been unable to walk or talk since. 

More From Albert Breer:

MMQB: How New Chargers Coach Brandon Staley Is Building Team Culture Virtually
GamePlan: Why the Jets Dealt Darnold and the Search for Their Next QB
An All-2021 NFL Draft Mailbag: Falcons Plans at No. 4, Teams That Could Trade Up and More