Julian Edelman Expected to Take Bigger Role in Patriots’ Offense After Deion Branch’s Release

Julian Edelman Expected to Take Bigger Role in Patriots' Offense After Deion Branch's ReleaseWhen Julian Edelman first took the field at Gillette Stadium in 2009, the former college quarterback knew his role was going to change. What he didn't know is that it might never stop.

One season into his professional career, the seventh-round draft pick was already drawing wild expectations. After hauling in 37 receptions during his rookie campaign, including a six-catch, two-touchdown playoff performance in place of an injured Wes Welker,  Edelman was being heralded as the Patriots' next great slot receiver.

Since watching his stock skyrocket, though, Edelman has endured a steep dropoff in production as well as a continued change in his role with the team. The never-ending cycle from quarterback to receiver to punt returner to defensive back and back again certainly hasn't been the most ideal career path for Edelman, but hope could be on the horizon.

A little over a week after veteran receivers Donte Stallworth and Jabar Gaffney were released by the team, former Super Bowl MVP Deion Branch also received his walking papers. Branch's release was necessary given the NFL's mandate to cut down to a 53-man roster by Friday, but the move was also likely prompted by the development of both Edelman and recently extended Aaron Hernandez.

Hernandez's role in the offense has already been established, with the pseudo-tight end grabbing 79 balls and seven touchdowns in 2011, and he'll definitely be relied upon to build an even stronger passing game. But while Hernandez joins up with the likes of Welker, Rob Gronkowski and new addition Brandon Lloyd, Edelman will also be in the mix to make his own mark on the offense.

Technically speaking, only three wide receivers are left on the Patriots' roster entering Week 1 — not counting Hernandez — and Edelman is surprisingly among that group. So while the depth in the slot won't necessarily become an issue, given the presence of Hernandez, Gronkowski and Welker, Edelman will be looked to as a legitimate option in some sets.

Edelman may not have the greatest track record of late, totaling just 11 catches and not a single touchdown over the past two seasons, but his speed and agility can present serious problems for opposing defenses. His combination of speed, skill and versatility should have offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels licking his lips, as he's got yet another weapon to unload on unsuspecting opponents.

It wasn't a surprise that the younger, quicker and more agile Edelman made the final roster over the veteran leader in Branch, but at the same time it wasn't just his youth and vigor or Bill Belichick's love affair with his talent that ultimately earned Edelman the spot.

There's a versatility, both on offense and special teams — especially now with Jeff Demps on season-ending injured reserve — that separates Edelman from most other wideouts. He's a crisp route runner, can play in a number of formations and is extremely elusive after the catch.

Edelman is truly more than a prototypical slot receiver, and with the right opportunity, he may finally be able to show off the elite skills that had people across New England drooling just a few years ago. This may be that opportunity, and moving Branch aside may have been the catalyst.

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