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Julian Edelman and his love affair with punt returns: ‘I love returning punts’

07.28.14 at 10:59 am ET
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FOXBORO — Julian Edelman knows he’s a wanted man.

Since the departure of Wes Welker, he’s become the No. 1 wide receiver target of Tom Brady and second only behind Rob Gronkowski in terms of priority passing options for the Patriots quarterback. Defenses last season began to understand this and that figures to be the case again this season as Edelman draws more and more attention.

But like Welker, Edelman’s value goes far beyond the passing game. He is one of the best weapons in the game as a punt returner – ever.

Surprised? Consider that he is tied for fourth best all-time (minimum 75 returns) with Devin Hester at 12.3 yards per return and is only a half-yard from George McAfee and Jack Christiansen for the best average in NFL history.

No one is calling Edelman’s return skills “ridiculous” as was the case with Hester but still, those are lofty numbers and explain why Bill Belichick wants to devote such important resources to give Edelman the best chance at making big plays on retuns. Sunday, he was back again receiving punts as Devin McCourty and Darrelle Revis were defending the opposing gunner while Brandon Browner was on the opposite side.

“I think it’s key just because we have a returner in Julian who can make big plays and he can score touchdowns,” McCourty said. “For us, we just have to go out there and give him a chance. We’re all guys that have been in the league. We’ve all done it before, and if we give him a chance, I think he can make big plays and that helps the team win.”

Edelman’s numbers fell a bit in 2013, averaging 10.7 yards per return with a career-high 23 fair catches.

“When you get 10 yards that’s your goal and when guys are working together you get a little more which is great,” Edelman said about the importance of the entire special teams unit. “But our number one job on that unit is to get the ball in the offense’s hand and make the right decision.”

Sunday, it paid off as Edelman thrilled the 10,000 fans in attendance by breaking free down the right sideline on one return. For Edelman, it’s part of his roots with the Patriots, something he has always enjoyed because it earned him a spot on the roster.

“That’s a part of the game that gave me an opportunity to make this team,” Edelman said. “I love returning punts. I want to do that and if they ask me to do that, I’m going to do it.”

If he doesn’t do it or is unable to perform those responsibilities, the duty will fall to Danny Amendola or possibly rookie Roy Finch, assuming his makes the team. Finch took some return reps Sunday, including a bobble, but recovered quickly.

“You guys remember when I was a rookie bobbling the ball around everywhere and getting booed by the crowd, but he’s just got to get some experience, repetition,” Edelman said, adding perspective. “You got to work on catching punts, finding the tip of the ball — if it turns over, if it doesn’t — what foot punter it is, the trajectory of the punt, what return you have — if it’s a return, if it’s not a return — the situation in the game,” Edelman said. “All that stuff. It comes with experience. I still have to try in practice every day to improve what I have to do because it’s a craft. If you don’t do it every day, it will slip away.”

Read More: 2014 training camp, Danny Amendola, Devin Hester, George McAfee
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