By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
Julian Edelman may well be the same player when he returns from a likely four-game suspension for violating the NFL’s performance-enhancing drugs policy. But the history of players of his ilk getting suspended for PEDs in the first place is relatively sparse, leaving his comeback from a torn ACL, and now a suspension, fraught with uncertainty.
In New England, it’s hard to ignore the case of Rob Ninkovich.
The former Patriots defensive end/linebacker was as dependable as any defender during his eight seasons under Bill Belichick. But his career came to a rapid end in 2016, soon after getting hit with a four-game suspension after he tested positive for a banned substance.
It’s unfair to draw a definitive correlation between PEDs and the drop-off in Ninkovich’s career, beyond reckless speculation. But here are the facts. Ninkovich played all 16 games for the Pats from 2011-15. From 2013-15, he played 97.9, 93.8, and 81.3 of all defensive snaps. In 2016, he played 462 of a possible 769 snaps in 2016 – only 60.1 percent. And by 2017, he’d retired from the league at age 32.
Also painfully fresh in the minds of Patriots fans is the decline of safety Rodney Harrison, who got banned four games for PEDs in 2007. Harrison said he never took steroids, but did admit he used a banned substance to “accelerate the healing process”. Law enforcement said he admitted to using human growth hormone. After starting in 11 of 12 games in 2007, Harrison tore his quadriceps in Week 7 of the 2008 season and retired in 2009 at age 36, remarking that he “didn’t really have that fire anymore.”
Is Edelman, 32, about to tread a similar path? A famous quote attributed to Mark Twain goes, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” The hope for Edelman, whose situation is similar but also quite different from the others, isn’t the latest stanza in this bleak PED poem.
The challenge ahead for Edelman in his comeback from the impending suspension is borderline unprecedented. PED suspensions often sting defensive players, offensive linemen. Guys who take a lot of physical punishment. Edelman does as well. But for wide receivers who have recorded at least one 1,000-yard receiving season, PED bans are exceptionally rare.
There are two notable, and encouraging, comparisons. Former Kansas City Chiefs wideout Dwayne Bowe sat four games in 2009 for PEDs, and followed that up with the best season of his career. Although he flamed out by the 2015 season, preceded by a substance abuse suspension in 2014, Bowe caught 72 passes for 1,162 yards and 15 touchdowns in the first season after his PED suspension. So either he figured out a new way to stay ahead of the testers, or getting caught simply didn’t spell doom for his career.
The other exception – and this one might sting a bit – is Philadelphia Eagles receiver Alshon Jeffery. After missing four games due to PEDs in the middle of the 2016 season, he returned to post 12 catches for 191 yards and two touchdowns in his final three games with the Chicago Bears. With the Eagles in 2017, Jeffery played all 16 games, catching 57 passes for 789 yards and nine touchdowns as a key cog in Philly’s offensive attack.
Although Jeffery was shut down when he got a helping of Stephon Gilmore in Super Bowl LII against the Patriots, the damage had been done – three catches, 73 yards, and one spectacular, pivotal touchdown.
Two big differences between Jeffery and Edelman. First, Jeffery was 26 years old at the time of his suspension; Edelman is 32. Second, Edelman is a vastly different player from Jeffery, specifically in that he’s absorbed significantly more damage from defenders over the course of his career. Because of the extreme rarity of PED suspensions for slot receivers as prolific as Edelman, it’s extraordinarily difficult to predict where his career goes from here.
Edelman will have a direct comparison to him entering the 2018 season. Jeremy Kerley has never been as productive as Edelman in his career, but he’s an undersized slot receiver who has also taken his share of hits in his career. He got dinged with a four-game suspension in November 2017, and the Jets cut him once his roster exemption expired in December. Now with the Buffalo Bills, Kerley is battling for a roster spot – and for a chance to prove he’s still a viable NFL receiver.
It’s certainly fair to wonder whether Edelman will ever be the same player again, and not just because of the suspension. He was already coming off a torn ACL suffered in the 2017 preseason. Plenty of players have proven able to rebound nicely from them in the past, but it’s still a major injury to a player on the wrong side of 30.
There’s most certainly a chance that Edelman steps back into the Patriots lineup and that his connection with Tom Brady resumes its usual dominance. He’s as tough a player as Belichick has ever coached; there’s no questioning that aspect of his game. The question is whether he’ll have the same burst, whether he’ll make cuts with the same quickness and agility, and whether he’ll continue to just get back up and keep going after taking hit after hit.
This won’t be the first time Edelman has been doubted in his career. It would also be far from the first time he proved those doubters categorically wrong. But there’s no denying this new, unexpected challenge in place for Edelman. It won’t stop him from one day donning a red jacket at Patriot Place, but it could be the moment that his memorable, impressive career started to wind down. Only Edelman can decide whether he will overcome the proverbial odds once again.
And now, three thoughts from around New England and the National Football League…
1. The reaction to the Patriots’ extensions for James Develin and Joe Cardona couldn’t have been more predictable. Not that everyone had the same reaction to the moves as our own “Sports Vulture” Adam Jones, but those dissenting voices are often the loudest. And man, was Jones loud when talking about these moves. The Cardona move, in particular, set off a Vesuvius-like eruption from the Dark Knight.
But any reasonable observer would realize how over-the-top Jones’ anti-Cardona rant truly was on Thursday. Unfortunately for the former Navy long snapper, his botched snap in Super Bowl LII will stick with him for his entire career. As a long snapper, his one job is, essentially, to not mess up. So it’ll be hard for him to shake that mistake from his resume. But to take what amounts to one snap and three lost points to a reason as to why he “sucks” and is “not good at his job” is wholly unfair to any football player. Yes, even the long snapper.
Cardona made $705,000 in 2017. In 2019, he’s wholly unlikely to get bumped up beyond the $1.1 million that the Titans’ Beau Brinkley will make in 2018, or the $1.015 million that the Giants are paying Zak DeOssie. And let’s be honest, Belichick’s record when it comes to choosing who to keep and who to move on from remains mostly impeccable. It should surprise no one if he just locked up a guy who’s going to develop into an elite long snapper in short order, on what would be a relative discount. If you care enough to complain about the signing, then you should care enough to give Cardona a chance to emerge.
2. Jimmy Garoppolo’s practice struggles are nothing new. Speaking of players Belichick might ultimately regret moving on from, Garoppolo looked good in his first five starts with the San Francisco 49ers. But the 26-year-old might have fans out west a little worried for the time being, because he had some glaring struggles at their own minicamp this week.
After reportedly dominating in the first three OTAs, Garoppolo and the offense couldn’t get in sync to start minicamp. They committed multiple false starts and couldn’t break through in red zone drills. But these reports aren’t terribly surprising to those who saw Garoppolo practice during his time with the Patriots. He wasn’t consistently sharp here, either.
As he showed during his brief time as the Patriots’ starter and most of his time with the Niners so far, Garoppolo can have a bad practice and still show up on Sunday. That’s the hope for San Fran at this stage. It’s still curious that Jimmy G. can’t seem to string good practices together, regardless of the uniforms he’s wearing.
3. The Bills gave Josh Allen some first-team reps at minicamp. By all accounts, the strong-armed signal caller out of Wyoming has a real chance to earn the starting gig right away despite entering training camp third on the depth chart. Allen sits behind ex-Bengals QB A.J. McCarron and … Nathan Peterman???
Based on the video clips posted online from Bills minicamp this past week, Allen is already proving that he can sling it with the best of them at the NFL level. Deep balls galore. There’s no doubting Allen’s arm at this point.
However, McCarron likely has a leg up in terms of NFL readiness, knowing how to run an offense, managing games, etc. And it’s highly un-likely that McCarron is doing anything to really help Allen along. He wants that starting job too. So it’s uncertain whether we’ll see Allen under center in Buffalo right from the start.
Matt Dolloff is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff or email him at email@example.com.
Click here for all Patriots updates from 98.5 The Sports Hub.