Scott Chandler

Missing in action: Can Patriots replace Julian Edelman?

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Julian Edelman immediately became Tom Brady’s favorite receiver when Wes Welker left New England. He led all Patriots receivers in catches in 2013 and 2014, highlighted by catching the game-winning touchdown pass in Super Bowl XLIX. He is also out for likely the rest of the regular season, so New England has to try to continue their undefeated ways without him. Can they?

Edelman’s Role in the New England Offense

Julian Edelman was largely a short-area receiver for New England this season. Over half of his targets came no more than five yards beyond the line of scrimmage. He was especially popular on passes beyond the line of scrimmage but no more than five yards downfield. Those passes are sometimes designed to create yards-after-catch opportunities. Sometimes, they involved finding a soft spot in zone coverages. In others, they relied on separation in tight spaces.

One place Edelman didn’t factor that much was in New England’s deep-passing game. Brady struggled to connect with him more than 15 yards downfield, and Edelman was New England’s eighth-most valuable receiver on deep passes by Football Outsiders’ numbers when he went down. Brady has already found Brandon LaFell, who started the season on the physically unable to perform list, on more deep completions than he did Edelman.

Though deep passes were not his forte, Edelman was so helpful to Brady because he could work all areas of the field. He lined up in the slot or outside on either the left or the right and ran both inside- and outside-breaking routes with success. This versatility is what made him so valuable.

New England’s Depleted Passing Targets

Like many teams, the Patriots often throw many of their passes to a small number of players. In 2013, only Edelman had more than 54 catches. Last year, just four players had more than 27 catches. This year, again just four players have at least 18 catches. Two of them are now injured. Edelman seems likely to return at some point, but running back Dion Lewis tore his ACL and is out for the season. Brady has just two high-volume targets left.

There are several silver linings to this story. First, Brady still has Rob Gronkowski, the most valuable receiving tight end in the league, according to Football Outsiders. Second, we have seen great quarterbacks with just two volume receivers before. Just look at Aaron Rodgers last year, when he threw half his passes to Randall Cobb and Jordy Nelson. Third, the cumulative season totals underrate the return of LaFell, whose improved performance coincided with the offense’s overall improvement after early-season struggles last year.

A Ready-Made Replacement, If and As Long As He Is Available

The fourth silver lining for New England and Brady is the other remaining target, Danny Amendola. Edelman’s production took off when Wes Welker left, but Amendola drew the big free agent contract presumably to do that exact job.

Amendola basically fits the Edelman mold to a tee. He does not have the same numbers, but his overall statistical profile is very much the same. An even bigger share of his targets come no more than five yards downfield, and he plays both the left and right sides and runs both inside- and outside-breaking routes. Importantly, Amendola is in his third season in New England. He might not have the same intuitive understanding Edelman did with Brady, but they have some rapport.

One downside of Amendola is he has a significant injury history. He played every game just twice in six seasons. He filled in the Edelman role admirably in the Bills game, to the tune of nine catches on 12 targets for 119 yards, but came out of it with a knee injury. That leads into the biggest concerns.

Where Edelman’s Absence Could Hurt

Early reports on Amendola’s injury said he was not expected to miss significant time. That is particularly important because there is no other player on the roster who could be expected to fill that role successfully. LaFell and Aaron Dobson are both outside receivers who complement the Edelman/Amendola role. In-season acquisition Keshawn Martin fits the physical prototype, but he struggled to find the field in Houston or succeed when he was there. Undrafted rookie Chris Harper spent most of the season on the practice squad. Neither is likely match Amendola’s chemistry with Brady, let alone that of Edelman.

The Patriots’ offensive line woes make that chemistry particularly important. Brady spent most of his career as one of the least-sacked quarterbacks in the NFL. By Football Outsiders’ adjusted sack rate metric, he ranked in the top ten least-sacked passers every full season from 2004 to 2014 — but not 2015. New England currently ranks 22nd by ASR. That puts added importance on the safety-valve receiver. Even if many of those short passes are not very productive –and they were not for Edelman, or Amendola, or even Brady in general — they can be very important in key situations and are better than just taking a sack.

That is the real downside, if the Patriots are forced to rely on Martin, Harper, or even a player like tight end Scott Chandler: the pressure will get to Brady and he will either have to force passes to LaFell or Gronkowski or take sacks. Cincinnati and Denver’s struggles give the Patriots the inside track to a bye and home-field advantage. Those same struggles, though, show the thin line between winning and losing in the NFL, and New England’s potential downside.