One exercise that I partake in each Summer is to look at the current scope of talent throughout the NFL. Seeing which types of skill-sets are currently successful in the league can help evaluators when it comes to identifying and valuing traits during collegiate scouting.
Another aspect of the pro scouting process is to see which players have outperformed and under-performed considering their draft slot. Many times, a player under-performing as a professional will come down to outside factors such as maturity or injuries, rather than strictly ability as a football player. However, there will still be instances of skill-sets and traits just failing to translate at the next level, and identifying those helps evaluators avoid making similar mistakes.
Along with that, identifying the traits in later round picks who translated well to the NFL should help the evaluation process moving forward. That’s what we’re going to do today.
Just over a decade ago was the 2009 NFL Draft. At the top of the class was quarterback Matthew Stafford, a plus starter for a long time in the league. However, the class is mostly known for being underwhelming directly following Stafford. The prospects chosen from 2 through 7 were as follows: Jason Smith, Tyson Jackson, Aaron Curry, Mark Sanchez, Andre Smith and Darrius Heyward-Bey.
Y - I - K - E - S.
Despite the weak group at the top, the class still had some hits in the form of B.J. Raji, Brian Orakpo, Malcolm Jenkins, Alex Mack, Clay Matthews, Eric Wood, Connor Barwin, LeSean McCoy and others. Arian Foster and Michael Bennett somehow slipped to the ranks of the undrafted.
While all of those players are or were strong forces in the NFL, there was a particular 7th round pick that standouts as the biggest “steal” of the draft. That player is the most recent Super Bowl MVP.
Back in 2009, Julian Edelman was finishing his playing career at Kent State after 3 seasons as the starting quarterback. Undersized at 5’10 and 195 pounds, Edelman fit the Golden Flashes offensive system because of his talents as a runner. During his final season, he finished with 1,370 rushing yards and 13 rushing touchdowns.
Edelman’s future role in the NFL wasn’t clear at the time of the draft, which led some analysts to believe that New England selecting him with the 232nd pick was to use him in “Wildcat” formations. Because, obviously, New England was trying to take the ball out of Tom Brady’s hands as much as possible.
New England targeted Julian Edelman for a different reason. Bill Belichick has always valued the short shuttle time for wide receivers over any other combine measurement. The first wide receiver that Bill Belichick selected in New England was Deion Branch in the second round of the 2002 NFL Draft. Branch had recently ran the second fastest short shuttle time in the history of the NFL Combine at 3.76s. In that same draft, Belichick drafted David Givens, a 217-pounder with a short shuttle time in the 73rd percentile (4.13s). In 2006, Belichick selected Florida Gator great Chad Jackson in the second round, who ran a short shuttle in the 90th percentile (4.03s). Before selecting Edelman in the 2009 NFL Draft, Belichick drafted Brandon Tate in the 3rd round. Tate had posted 4.12s short shuttle, for the 74th percentile.
During Kent State’s pro day, despite a forty-yard dash time that failed to break the 4.50s barrier, Edelman blazed to a 3.92s short shuttle. That time would have been the best at the NFL Scouting Combine that year by a whopping .11s. Belichick saw Edelman’s potential because of his quickness, which could translate into his change of direction and route running. With his experience carrying the football (502 rushes in college), Edelman could have a knack for picking up yards after the catch.
Changing positions likely meant that Edelman’s development was going to be a process, and his early contributions may have to come through special teams. Little did the world know, but Edelman was going to carve out an offensive role right away.
During his rookie season in 2009, Edelman would finish with 37 receptions in 11 games (7 starts). With Wes Welker injured during the playoffs, Edelman had 2 touchdowns during a wild card round loss to the Baltimore Ravens. Despite that early success in his career, New England got busy reinventing their offensive identity during the following offseason.
The Patriots would draft tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, who would both immediately assume bigger pass catching roles than Edelman. New England also saw Deion Branch return to the team, further pushing Edelman down the slot receiver depth chart. However, that initial special teams potential that Edelman possessed would come to light over the next three seasons. He quickly established himself as one of the most successful punt returners of all time, averaging 13.3 yards per return with 3 touchdowns from 2010-2012.
It wasn’t until 2013 when Edelman would finally take on a larger role in the Patriots offense. That offseason, Wes Welker signed with the Denver Broncos. New England responded by trading for Danny Amendola to “replace” Welker. However, the Patriots already had Julian Edelman in place to assume the Welker role.
Since then, over the past five seasons, Julian Edelman has become one of the top wide receivers in the National Football League. With nearly unprecedented chemistry between Edelman and quarterback Tom Brady, his production has increased to, dare I say, Hall of Fame quality.
Edelman’s 16 game average over that span: 103 receptions, 1,116 yards and 6 touchdowns. In 13 playoff games since becoming the full-time starter, Edelman has 106 receptions for 1,337 yards.
New England has won 3 Super Bowls, and Edelman has had a massive part in each of those wins. In Super Bowl 49 against one of the greatest defenses of all-time, Edelman posted 9 receptions for 102 yards and the game-winning touchdown. Facing a massive deficit against the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl 51, Edelman had 87 yards and one of the greatest catches in playoff history. In Super Bowl 53 against the Los Angeles Rams, Edelman posted 10 receptions for 141 yards on his way to the Super Bowl MVP award.
Despite lacking experience at the position upon entering the NFL, Edelman’s defining qualities were his quickness, elusiveness and competitiveness. New England had a player in the prime of his career at Edelman’s position with Wes Welker, which allowed them to dedicate time to Edelman’s development. After years of mostly practice and preseason reps, you could see the difference in his route running compared to his early years.
New England took Welker’s role and expanded it for Edelman, creating a totally unique position that perfectly fits Edelman’s skill-set. They constantly feature his lightning-fast change of direction, allowing him to play in space. When they design a play that will rely on yards after the catch, it’s Edelman who they choose to get the ball to. When they need a player to compete as a blocker, on special teams or even on defense because of multiple injuries, it’s been Edelman who they’ve relied on over the years.
Edelman’s success doesn’t mean that every wide receiver prospect with fast agility times will ascend to his level. His success doesn’t mean that every quarterback convert will develop into a good wide receiver, or that teams being patient with development will always pay off. It’s even possible that Edelman doesn’t find the same on-field success if he were drafted by a different franchise, we’ll never know the answer to that. However, NFL teams missed on what Edelman could eventually become in the NFL during the 2009 NFL Draft.
Edelman is the second most decorated wide receiver in NFL history when it comes to playoff production, he’s a three-time Super Bowl champion, he’s a Super Bowl MVP and he has 499 career receptions. You can go ahead and add biggest “draft steal” of 2009 to that mantle.