When Bill Belichick called Julian Edelman to inform him that the Patriots had just chosen him in the seventh round back in 2009, even the coach had no idea how he might one day use him. In the ensuing 12 years, the Patriots managed to incorporate him in virtually every imaginable way.
The former Kent State quarterback decided to retire, ending one of the most unlikely legendary careers in Patriots history. Edelman leaves Foxborough with 620 receptions for 6,822 yards and 36 touchdowns, but those numbers are only a small part of his immense impact on the franchise.
Edelman also returned punts, played defensive back, threw touchdown passes and ignited the Gillette Stadium crowds with his enthusiasm and performance too many times to count.
But before any of that took place, Belichick called Edelman on that April night, and both agreed they had no idea what position he'd play.
"He just told me to be ready," Edelman said several years ago, thinking back to his early days. "He said I don't know where you'll play but we'll figure that out. Just get here and be ready to go."
Truth be told, it didn't look like the coach would need to spend much time worrying about finding a spot for a converted college quarterback. When the diminutive Edelman hit the practice fields for the first time during spring OTAs, he did not look the part of an NFL player. He consistently had trouble catching the ball, particularly on punts, and on the rare occasions when he did field the kicks cleanly he often slipped as he tried to quickly race upfield.
Things didn't get much better once training camp began, but then the preseason kicked off and everything suddenly changed. Edelman was back deep to return a punt in Philadelphia, and on his first chance he took it 75 yards to the house. A mic'd up Belichick was seen on the sideline needling Wes Welker, the man Edelman was trying to replicate, asking him if he knew who Wally Pipp was.
Pipp was the former New York Yankee made famous for being replaced by Lou Gehrig, never to be heard from again. Welker enjoyed plenty more great moments with the Patriots over the next four years, but Edelman emerged as a player worthy of comparison. In fact, Edelman's 620 catches are second only to Welker's 672 in team history.
So, how did Edelman go from an athletic project perhaps worthy of development to a standout Super Bowl hero and MVP? It certainly didn't happen overnight.
With Welker entrenched as Tom Brady's go-to guy in the slot, Edelman had to settle for a secondary role. He managed 37 catches and a touchdown in his rookie season, and when Welker went down with a torn ACL late in the year Edelman caught a pair of touchdowns in the playoff loss to Baltimore in his place.
Presenting our favorite photos of Julian Edelman during his 12-year NFL career with the New England Patriots.
Over the next three years Edelman battled injuries of his own and tried to make the most of his chances waiting in the wings. But when Welker left for Denver as a free agent in 2013, Edelman joined Rob Gronkowski as the focal points of the Patriots passing attack.
He caught 105 passes in 2013, his first as the primary option in the slot. He recorded seasons of 92, 98 and 100 receptions as the years progressed. But he saved his best work for the playoffs, where he racked up 118 catches for 1,442 yards and five touchdowns in 19 career playoff games. Three of those seasons ended in Super Bowl titles, the last of which saw him take home MVP honors thanks to a 10-catch, 141-yard effort against the Rams in Atlanta.
But again, Edelman's impact on the Patriots wasn't just about sheer numbers. It was his penchant for doing what needed to be done when it mattered most. Training by 10 in the fourth quarter in Super Bowl XLVI against Seattle and facing a third-and-14, it was Edelman who came through, absorbing a huge hit from Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor to keep the drive alive. Eventually he picked up the go-ahead touchdown that evening, earning him his first ring.
Before that game was even possible it was Edelman who delivered a perfect strike to Danny Amendola for a huge momentum-turning touchdown off a double pass against the Baltimore Ravens when the Patriots were on the ropes in the divisional round. Two years later Edelman's impossible catch off a deflection kept the game-tying drive going as the Patriots completed the largest comeback in Super Bowl history in overtime against Atlanta.
In the 2011 AFC Championship Game the Patriots were once again trying to deal with the Ravens and Edelman came up big yet again. Only this time he was pressed into service on defense. He was forced to chase Anquan Boldin around as the Patriots depleted secondary dealt with injuries, and Edelman helped them hang on for the victory.
There were countless other examples, big and small, but all memorable. Because almost everything Edelman did became memorable thanks to his reckless style that endeared him to the Foxborough faithful. His competitive nature and fearless approach showed his commitment to winning, and fans loved it.
As he continued to excel Edelman further entrenched himself as part of the fabric of New England. His California roots belied a style that more resembled the blue-collar nature of a native Bostonian. Edelman never backed down from a challenge, always willing to put his body on the line for the greater good, and ultimately that mentality ended his career.
Edelman suffered countless injuries over the years, from foot problems to a torn ACL that cost him the 2017 season to shoulder issues and most recently a knee so damaged it resulted in him playing the 2020 campaign with bone on bone. That situation soon became too much to handle and his final season ended prematurely after just six games – and now his career is over as well. Even then he managed to establish a single-game career high with 179 yards on eight catches in a Week 2 loss in Seattle.
His impact will be a lasting one at Patriot Place, where he should soon be once again after hearing his name called as a member of the Patriots Hall of Fame. Until then we'll remember the big plays and tremendous impact – and we'll wonder how long it took Belichick to realize he had something special on his hands – even if he didn't know exactly what it was.