Best of Belichick Era: Number 20 — Julian Edelman

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I'm spending 50 days ranking the top 50 players of the Bill Belichick Era, from No. 50 down to No. 1. (Click here for a criteria on how I made my selections.)

Enjoy.

Today we reach . . . .

NUMBER 20: JULIAN EDELMAN
Years With Patriots: 2009-present
Games: 78
Playoff Games: 10
Honors: Super Bowl winner (2014)

Had I done this list at the end of 2012, Julian Edelman wouldn’t have been on it. Might not have been on it after 2013, either, even after catching 105 balls for 1,056 yards in the regular season and another 16 in two playoff games. His resume -- even though he's one of the most prolific punt returners in NFL history -- wasn’t long enough.

But now?

Accuse me of recency bias if you want, but Edelman’s 2014 postseason rockets him up to the top 20.

His backstory is typical Patriots. A college quarterback and seventh-round pick, he caught 8 balls for 98 yards in his first game -- a Week 2 pinch-hitting appearance for Wes Welker -- against the Jets.  He was boxed out by Welker from then until the final regular-season game, when Welker’s ACL went in Houston; Edelman stepped in and caught 10 for 103. In the Patriots’ mail-it-in loss to the Ravens in the 2009 playoffs Edelman was one of the few players who showed up, catching six passes and two touchdowns.

But Welker held onto the job in 2010 and '11. In 2012, Edelman looked ready to overtake him coming out of camp, but then broke his wrist against the Ravens in Week 4 and damaged his foot at Miami in Week 12, landing on injured reserve.

Deemed too brittle to rely on, Edelman wasn’t the first choice to replace Welker after the latter signed with the Broncos in 2013; Danny Amendola was. But when Amendola got hurt in the first game, Edelman got his shot . . . and he's been nothing less than the best slot receiver in the NFL ever since. And in the biggest games, he's been money.

In the Patriots' five postseason games in 2013 and '14, Edelman had 42 catches for 454 yards, two touchdowns (including the Super Bowl game-winner against the Seahawks) and a touchdown pass that changed the shape of the 2014 Divisional Playoff against Baltimore. In 2014, he returned 9 punts for 143 yards in three playoff games.

Also, Edelman’s punt-return accomplishments get overlooked: He’s fourth all-time in average yards per return (12.3), which ties him with Devin Hester. Every other guy in the top 10 entered the league prior to 1993. In other words, against more skilled punters and bigger, faster coverage groups, Edelman is getting it done at an almost Ruthian level.

Long, long, long after Edelman’s done, he’ll be forever running like a crazed dog in the 2014 postseason highlights. 

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