By Alex Barth, 985TheSportsHub.com
Tom Brady leaving the Patriots to join the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will send ripples throughout the NFL. Outside of Brady himself, Julian Edelman could feel the brunt of that impact perhaps more than any player in the league.
Edelman made a name for himself as Brady's right-hand man for the last decade. He's caught more passes from Brady (689) than anybody else. His identity both on and off the field has been heavily tied in to being Brady's "little brother" or "Slottie Pippen."
Now, for the first time since he transitioned from quarterback to wide receiver after being drafted in 2009, one of the NFL's most consistant players enters the unknown.
A huge part of what makes/made Julian Edelman so effective is/was the chemistry with Tom Brady. Their ability to know what the other was going to do before he did it took on almost a hive-mind kind of look at times. While Edelman will certainly have time to build a rapport with Jarrett Stidham or whoever the next guy is, they won't come close in six months to what Brady and Edelman put together over 10 years.
There's also the issue of Edelman's role. The Patriots offense will likely look different going forward than it did under Brady, and that could mean decreased importance for the slot receiver position. Bill Belichick and the Patriots tend to run counter to the trends and fads of the rest of the league. With the other 31 teams investing more in slot guys now than ever before, Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels could use Brady's departure as an excuse to try a new angle on the offensive side of the ball.
If given the chance, Edelman can still play. Despite battling through various injuries for what felt like all of last season, he managed to catch 100 balls for 1,117 yards. Still, those injuries are starting to linger longer, and he's a guy who has to play the game physically to be effective.
This is where the reality of time becomes a factor. Edelman will be 34 years old when the team begins training camp this summer. Only three receivers in NFL history have caught over 100 passes and gone for over 1,000 yards at the age of 34 (Jerry Rice in 1996, Reggie Wayne in 2012, Larry Fitzgerald in 2017). No wide receiver has ever accomplished the feat at the age of 35 or older.
While Edelman's contract technically runs through 2021, there is an out after the 2020 season that would save the Patriots $4 million in cap space (per Spotrac). One of Bill Belichick's famous strategies when it comes to roster building has always been to part with a player a year too early instead of a year too late.
Edelman should stick around for 2020. He's coming off a near-career year, and perhaps more importantly can provide a veteran voice in the locker room that has lost a number of leaders this offseason. After that though, all bets are off.
Will the Patriots want a 35-year-old receiver costing them nearly $7 million against the cap on the roster, especially if he proves to be less effective without Tom Brady? Will Edelman want to spend the end of his NFL career with a team that could be going through a rebuild, or capitalize on a rapidly closing window?
He could dash to Tampa to re-join Brady, or perhaps go out on his own. It's hard to project what teams will be needing 12 months from now, but he could go play for his hometown 49ers who should still have a competitive roster, or join a former Patriots staff member in Miami, Detroit, New York, Houston, or perhaps even Mike Vrabel in Tennessee. After all, he was on the infamous FaceTime call.
Trading Edelman right now feels like it would be a panicked reactionary move for the Patriots. Given the unique way he plays he won't be valued by other teams as much as he is with the Patriots, and they shouldn't shortchange themselves on the return.
Bill Belichick is the king of "get something before they walk for nothing," but in this case running Edelman out to the end feels like the right play. Given his importance in the locker room and, if the offense doesn't change to drastically, how he should help a young quarterback get through his first NFL season, he's worth more than the third-round pick they'd likely get for him.
Edelman has been a staple of the Patriots Dynasty 2.0 and three Super Bowl championships. Moving on from him is no small task. But in the Post-Brady era, as they did when the core of the early 2000's teams aged out, the best way to get competitive again quickly is embrace an 'out with the old, in with the new mentality.' As good as he's been, and as much as he's meant to the organization, it's hard to project a place for Julian Edelman in that plan.