It has been a crazy week in the world of Boston sports. The Red Sox, who had a record of 15-4 in August coming into last Thursday night’s game in Cleveland, went on a four game losing skid, including a sweep at the hands of the Baltimore Orioles. The Celtics pulled off a blockbuster trade that was finally completed after they resolved the concern over the condition of Isaiah Thomas’ hip. However, despite these developments, the Saturday news that Julian Edelman has a completely torn ACL is the lead story in Boston this week. This news did not come as much of a surprise to anyone who heard that Edelman had been carted off the field in Friday night’s preseason game against Detroit with a non-contact knee injury. Later that night, Adam Schefter reported that the Patriots believed the injury to be a torn ACL. Even with Edelman out for the season, anything short of a Super Bowl title for this Patriots team would be a disappointment because of their wide receiver depth to make up for the loss of the Kent State product. Aside from Edelman, the Patriots will have former Saints top option Brandin Cooks, Danny Amendola, Malcolm Mitchell and Chris Hogan, as well as undrafted rookie Austin Carr who showed flashes of talent in the preseason. Edelman’s injury shouldn’t have much of an impact on the regular season, and this team has enough talent to hypothetically replace his production in the postseason. However, the loss of Edelman has the potential to trip the Patriots up in a big game given his standing and his versatility within the Patriots offense.
Ever since Wes Welker signed with the Denver Broncos after the 2012 season, Julian Edelman has solidified himself as a staple of the Patriots offense. Over that time, he has become Tom Brady’s favorite receiver (discounting Gronk because of his tight end status), and his best friend. The go-to factor with Edelman cannot be overstated. He is the best third down receiver in football, leading the league in third down yardage and finishing second in third down receptions in 2016. When the Patriots won their recent championships, they relied heavily on converting in third down situations at a high clip throughout the seasons. In three of their last four Super Bowl-winning seasons (this stat was not recorded in 2001), the Patriots finished top five in the NFL in third down conversion percentage.
In their last two Super Bowls, New England dominated their opponents in third down conversions, largely thanks to Julian Edelman. In Super Bowl 49 against Seattle, the Patriots converted on eight of fourteen third down attempts, while the Seahawks converted three of ten attempts. The story was the same in Super Bowl 51. The Patriots converted seven of fourteen (50%) third down attempts, while the Falcons converted just one of eight (12%). Third down success can serve as a pretty accurate barometer for the Patriots’ success overall, and without Brady’s go-to receiver in the slot, I question how effective New England will be on third down.
The offense will have to go through drastic changes to make up for the loss of Edelman. There is no player in New England or in free agency that could possibly fill the role of Julian Edelman. Instead, Belichick and Offensive Coordinator Josh McDaniels will have to fundamentally change how the offensive is run. Instead of relying on Edelman to move the chains on third and long, the Patriots must perform more on first and second downs to alleviate the pressure. With Brandin Cooks and Chris Hogan at the top of the depth chart at wide receiver, the Patriots will try to incorporate the deep ball into their offense. If the Patriots’ offense is centered on the deep ball, they will not win the championship. I do not trust a 40-year-old Tom Brady to deliver deep passes with the same consistency that he did in his prime, even if he is indeed the G.O.A.T. The only year when the offense was centered on Brady throwing the deep ball ended with him recording 50 touchdown passes, but no Super Bowl ring. They are better off relying on Brady to make pinpoint 10-15 yard throws and using his brain to dissect defensive schemes.
Even with a new offensive game plan, I am not sure that the Patriots have reliable weapons to win it all this year. With Edelman out for the year, New England will rely on Rob Gronkowski to stay healthy for the full season, a rarity over the course of his career. In his six years in the NFL, Gronkowski has only stayed fully healthy for two seasons. One of them was his rookie campaign in which he only made 11 starts. I do not trust Gronk to remain healthy for the entire season, and an offense without Gronkowski and Edelman could come to be the nail in the coffin for the 2017 Patriots season. There are other concerns in the Patriots’ offense as well. 2016 fourth round draft pick Malcolm Mitchell flashed talent last season, but also showed some injury concerns and is hurt again this preseason. Danny Amendola would be a potential fill-in for Julian Edelman, but he has injury concerns as well. In his eight seasons in the NFL, he has played 16 games twice. If we were to get the same amount of touches as Edelman, he would likely not last the full season.
Despite potential injury risks, the Patriots have enough talent in their receiving core to make up for Julian Edelman’s production. Barring another injury, I do not believe that Edelman’s absence will prevent the Patriots from reaching the AFC Championship Game, or even another Super Bowl. However, I have concerns about what will happen in the Super Bowl without Julian Edelman. Out of the five Super Bowls won by the Patriots franchise, every single one has been close. The Patriots’ 34-28 overtime win over the Falcons was the biggest point differential in a Patriots Super Bowl victory. If the Patriots make it to the Super Bowl, it will be close, and this is what scares me. Brady has weapons this year, but we have seen wide receivers get shut out of the offense because Brady does not trust them. With new characters, young players attempting to solidify themselves in the offense, injury risks and no go-to receiver in sight, I am not sure about who will deliver for the reigning champs with the Super Bowl on the line.