FOXBORO, Mass. — The New England Patriots are primed to be much better in 2014 than they were this season, but they can forget about improving if they make one major misstep in free agency.
The Patriots must re-sign Julian Edelman this offseason. Edelman is the most important player on the Patriots’ roster entering free agency, and the team’s success in 2014 could depend on whether the Patriots wisely sign the versatile receiver or let him walk like they did with Wes Welker in 2013.
Luckily for Edelman, head coach/general manager Bill Belichick doesn’t seem to have any animosity toward the 27-year-old breakout star like he did with Welker. Edelman doesn’t try to rock the boat like Welker did, and Belichick’s reviews of Edelman have been glowing since training camp.
Edelman is the perfect Patriot. He keeps his mouth shut, plays through injuries and has proven he will do whatever it takes to get on the field. That includes playing defensive back, going over the middle to catch passes and returning punts. Edelman hardly turned up on the Patriots’ injury report this season, and you get the idea that the receiver will play through any ailment unless a bone is broken or a ligament is severely torn.
The Patriots saw what happened this season when quarterback Tom Brady didn’t have enough trustworthy receivers. Brady’s game faltered before tight end Rob Gronkowski returned from injury, and after he tore his ACL. Edelman was the only receiver left that Brady appeared comfortable targeting. There is no telling where the Patriots would have wound up without Edelman, but it likely would not have been the AFC Championship Game.
“He was one guy who was just so consistent, dependable for us. I’m just proud of him because of his mental toughness, and his maturity and his work ethic,” Brady said of Edelman on WEEI on Monday morning. “He spent a lot of time watching over the last four years. And to finally get an opportunity where he could be an every-down player, the way he contributed to our team, especially in a game like yesterday where he made so many big plays for us, was great to see.”
The fifth-year receiver was the lone player Brady trusted in Sunday’s AFC Championship Game loss to the Denver Broncos, too. Out of Brady’s 24 completions and 38 attempts, Edelman received 10 catches and 15 targets. Brady targeted Danny Amendola just once — the 2013 free agent dropped the attempt — and rookie Aaron Dobson three times.
If Belichick thinks Edelman is demanding too much cash, maybe the coach should consider the 105 catches and 1,056 yards Edelman gutted out for just $1.015 million in 2013. Add this season into any contract Edelman will sign during the offseason, and he’ll come out looking like a bargain.
Edelman shouldn’t be too costly, either. His contract should be comparable, or slightly higher, than Welker’s and Amendola’s, even though he offers more value as a punt returner. Welker earned a two-year, $12 million deal, and Amendola signed a five-year, $28.5 million contract. Edelman is a year younger than Amendola, so five years and $30 million could get it done for “Minitron.” (Brady and Edelman share an agent, and what’s good for Brady is good for Edelman and vice versa.)
It helps the Patriots’ negotiating that Edelman is more valuable to New England than he is to any other team — meaning his demand shouldn’t be too high — and he’s more valuable to the Patriots than a slightly better receiver, since he already has a rapport with Brady. There’s no use finding a slightly cheaper or better Edelman since the one they have is the one they need.
Edelman might be viewed as redundant with Amendola already on the books. But both receivers played simultaneously this season with Edelman playing the “Z” and Amendola in the slot. Amendola only has one more guaranteed year on his contract, so he can be cut without penalty after 2014.
The Patriots showed interest in Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Emmanuel Sanders last offseason. He’s slightly faster than Edelman and could be cheaper, but he would still need to earn Brady’s trust.
Edelman will likely never be an “elite” receiver. He can’t dominate a game like Calvin Johnson or A.J. Green, but if the Patriots want Brady’s remaining years to be fruitful, he needs receivers he knows. Edelman moved to Los Angeles because he wanted to develop a rapport with Brady. He’s been working on that trust and chemistry since 2009, and it would be a waste to let it all go so the Patriots can save for a receiver than might or might not work with Brady.
The Patriots have wide receivers Amendola, Dobson, Kenbrell Thompkins, Josh Boyce, Matthew Slater, T.J. Moe and Mark Harrison under contract for 2014. None of those receivers is a sure thing — Edelman is.
On Tuesday, I will rank the rest of the Patriots’ free agents, including Aqib Talib and LeGarrette Blount, by priority. Follow @DougKyedNESN