NFL: Cincinnati Bengals at New England PatriotsFOXBORO, Mass. — Julian Edelman is the kind of guy who arrives to work early, and it’s probably much earlier than you think.

The 5-foot-10, 196-pound New England Patriots wide receiver wouldn’t disclose what time he arrives to home games (“It’s early, though”), but Matthew Slater, Edelman’s closest teammate and a special teams captain hinted at the answer.

“I can tell you, I live with him, and every day the guy — I feel like the guy leaves the house at 5 o’clock,” Slater said. “He goes out of his way to prepare and give himself the best way he can to have success. Whether it’s taking care of his body, getting extra catches in, extra time in the weight room, extra time in film, he does it all.”

In recent years, many have wondered how a receiver gains quarterback Tom Brady’s trust. Wes Welker, Deion Branch, Rob Gronkowski and Randy Moss are among the select few skill-position players who have earned such an honor, and it seems that it either takes other-worldly talent (like Moss and Gronk) or an excessive commitment to excellence.

It’s not surprising that Edelman — who sometimes beats coaches to the facility in the morning — has earned that trust from his quarterback.

“Julian has worked his tail off to get where he’s at,” Brady said this summer. “I think he’s really taken advantage of every opportunity that he’s gotten, Julian has. I’m really proud of him. He keeps coming out and making plays, and he’s done such a great job being so dependable and reliable for our team. It’s great to have him.”

Edelman’s dedication is on display every Sunday, when he’s the first Patriot on the game field. Edelman goes through a routine with a team assistant, practicing one-handed, shoestring and over-the-shoulder catches — more than three hours before kickoff.

“I never like to be rushed. I like to be able to get in, go through a routine, sit in your hot tub, go over your plays, little reminders and all that kind of stuff,” Edelman told in the Patriots’ locker room. “Kind of just get ready for the game.”

Edelman never strays from his pregame routine, which also includes firing out of the Patriots’ giant inflatable helmet as Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train” blares over the stadium P.A. during pregame and running 100 yards down the field with a fist-pump exclamation point as he arrives at the opposite end zone.

“I always used to see guys at Niners games do that,” the Bay Area native, with a San Francisco Giants hat in his locker, said. “Jerry Rice used to hype up the crowd.”

Ever the perfect Patriot, Edelman never likes to talk himself up too much. After 100-yard games, he still has to work on his blocking. When discussing his influence on teammates, he critiques his own body language. (“Sometimes you gotta be able to control that a little better, and I’d be the first to say that.”)

Edelman also doesn’t want to be the one to call himself a leader.

“A leader is a person that has production and usually has a good attitude,” Edelman said. “That’s how I’ve been told a leader is. If you go out there and you have a good attitude, and you’re constantly supporting everyone and that kind of stuff, and then you also have a really productive day — I don’t know if you call yourself a leader. I think it’s more of what your peers think. I’m just trying to go out there and do my job and play tough, smart football.”

Slater had no problem being his friend’s spokesman, however.

“I think the big thing you have to look at — the grand scope of Julian’s career, a guy who came in here as a college quarterback and just worked his way into becoming a premier receiver,” Slater said. “I think that, in itself, speaks volumes. His work ethic, and the way he prepares, the way he practices — when he’s our leader, and he’s doing that, the other guys, we can’t help but fall in line and do what he’s doing.”

Edelman’s backstory is well known at this point, but it bears repeating. He came into the NFL as a seventh-round pick and former college quarterback. After a promising rookie season as a receiver, Edelman toiled as a special-teams ace (and part-time defensive back) until he was finally able to reel in a starting role in his fifth NFL season while playing on a one-year, $715,000 contract that included an extra $300,000 in incentives, all of which he reached.

He caught 105 passes for 1,056 yards and six touchdowns and signed a four-year, $17 million contract this offseason. On pace for 99 catches for 1,018 yards and three touchdowns, Edelman hasn’t slowed down this season as some expected.

According to Edelman’s own definition, that production, plus his attitude, has made him a leader. His teammates agree.

“He just goes out there, and he just balls,” wide receiver Brandon LaFell said this week. “Whether it’s in the return game, slot receiver, whatever, he just balls. No matter what, he just goes out there and balls. Coach is always preaching about leaders on this team. You don’t need to say nothing, you just have to go out and do your job. Somebody see you out there doing your job the correct way, they’re going to follow your lead.”

Edelman is widely known as a leader by example, but he’s willing to talk when it’s necessary.

“I feel like when something needs to be said, especially to the receiver room, he’s going to step up and say it,” second-year pro Aaron Dobson said. “Also, by example. He does everything right, as far as extra things to do. Me, being a young guy, can definitely look at him and see some little things I can work on after practice, catching the ball, tennis balls, what he does in the training room. There’s a lot of stuff with me being a young receiver can look at and learn from him. I think he’s (a leader) by example and vocal.”

Edelman doesn’t only have respect from his peers. Head coach Bill Belichick has compared the receiver’s path to Patriots Hall of Famer Tedy Bruschi, who was a three-time All-Pac-10 selection as an undersized defensive lineman at Arizona before converting to linebacker as a pro.

“Julian worked extremely hard,” Belichick said over the summer. “He developed skills in two areas — punt return and receiver — that he didn’t have any experience at. That’s not an easy thing to do at all. You’ve got to give a lot of credit for the amount of work, dedication and training that he’s put into that.”

The Patriots have experienced an unusual amount of turmoil in five weeks this season, so a player with Edelman’s consistency and hard work becomes even more necessary. Brady relied on Edelman so heavily early in the season that the quarterback was criticized for “keying in” on his top receiver. That’s crazy talk, though — Edelman is one of few players who has earned Brady’s focus.

Photo via Stew Milne/USA TODAY Sports