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Why Julian Edelman has been most valuable offensive option for Patriots this season

09.17.13 at 11:52 pm ET

After missing the spring workouts and start of training camp this summer because of offseason foot surgery, wide receiver Julian Edelman mentioned to the media on Aug. 1 — shortly after he was removed from the physically unable to perform list — that all he was looking to do was trying to catch up to his teammates. ‘€œThe train is moving,’€ he said shortly after his first practice of the summer. ‘€œAnd I have to catch up.’€

Fast-forward two weeks into the regular season. When it comes to the New England passing game, Tom Brady may still be the conductor, but the train isn’€™t going anywhere without Edelman. While the Patriots are relying heavily on rookies for the first time in Brady’€™s career in large part due to injuries to Rob Gronkowski, Danny Amendola and Shane Vereen, they’€™ve also managed to squeeze as much as they could out of the former college quarterback.

Through two games, few receivers have been so integral to their offense as Edelman — the former college quarterback has caught 20 of his team’€™s 48 completed passes (all of them from Brady), or 42 percent of the total receptions. Percentage-wise, the only pass catcher in the league who has shouldered more of his team’€™s offensive workload through the first two games is Tampa Bay’€™s Vincent Jackson, who has accounted for 50 percent (12-for-24) of the completed passes from Bucs quarterback Josh Freeman. From a percentage standpoint, Philly’€™s DeSean Jackson matches up with Edelman, having accounted for 42 percent of the completions — 16 of 38 — from Eagles quarterback Michael Vick.

(To give you an idea of the other end of the spectrum, there are four passing games who are led by receivers who have caught 20 percent of their team’€™s passes. However, three of those teams — Dallas, Baltimore and San Diego — have multiple players sharing the team lead in total receptions. Only one team — St. Louis — has one leading receiver who accounts for 20 percent of the team receptions, with the honor going to Tavon Austin, who has caught 12 of the 59 passes completed by Rams quarterback Sam Bradford.)

His value is also seen in the number of snaps he’€™s played through two games. Per Pro Football Focus, Edelman is second in the league in snaps at the wide receiver position, trailing only Baltimore’€™s Torrey Smith (148 to 146). He leads Patriots wide receivers in snaps with 148, two more than rookie Kenbrell Thompkins.

Part of the spike in his numbers is obvious: In a sea of new faces, Edelman is a familiar presence for Brady. He’€™s the only receiver currently on the roster who caught a pass from the quarterback in 2012, and has displayed a nice chemistry with him, one that has been lacking with some of his teammates. However, that doesn’€™t mean Edelman isn’€™t immune from Brady’€™s wrath. Cameras picked up the quarterback barking at Edelman on the sidelines of Thursday night’€™s win over the Jets, although after the game it was all good.

‘€œHe did a great job,’€ Brady said of Edelman. ‘€œHe caught the ball, caught it in traffic. He really did a great job of really being dependable out there.’€

Going back and comparing Edelman’€™s numbers over the course of the last decade, only Wes Welker (2008) and Randy Moss (2007) enjoyed anywhere near the same early season success. Over the first two games of the 2008 season, Welker caught 13 of the first 36 completed passes from Brady and Matt Cassel to account for 36 percent of the receptions. Meanwhile, Moss also hit 36 percent through the first two games of the 2007 season when he came away with 17 of the first 47 completed passes from Brady.

(All this, and we haven’€™t even covered his special teams value to this point — through two games, he’€™s fielded nine punts and averaged 11.6 yards per return, good for ninth in the AFC. In addition, earlier this year, he set the mark for all-time punt return average — for a minimum of 75 returns — at 13 yards per return.)

Of course, Edelman started strong last season — remember, he was the one who picked up extra snaps at the start of the year in the wake of the whole Welker kerfuffle — but still only had six catches for 59 yards and a touchdown through the first two games. This year, he’€™s tied with Houston’€™s Andre Johnson for the league lead in receptions with 20. He’€™s also second in the league in targets with 27 (trailing only Johnson), and while he’€™s well behind the league leaders when it comes to total receiving yardage and yards after the catch, his two touchdowns are tied for eighth among the league leaders.

In the end, it’€™s unlikely he’€™ll be able to keep up the breakneck pace over the course of the 2013 season (he’€™s on pace for 160 catches), but it’€™s looking more and more like the one-year, $765,000 deal the Patriots signed him to in April was the best money they spent all offseason. It’€™s important to remember that the passing game will continue to grow and evolve and change and Edelman’€™s chances will likely drop, particularly when the Gronkowski-Amendola-Vereen trio is back at full strength and if/when the rookies emerge as a consistent threat. But while that transition takes place, someone has to be the guy to keep the train on the tracks, and Edelman has certainly exceeded every expectation in that regard.

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