What’s up with Julian Edelman?

NFL: DEC 24 Jets at Patriots

There is no doubt about it –  Julian Edelman is a gamechanger for the Patriots. The wide receiver broke his left foot in week 10 last year while playing against the Giants and did not return until the divisional round of the playoffs. The Patriots offense felt his absence in a very palpable way.

In the 2015 season, the Patriots had a record of 12-4. With Edelman playing, New England’s record was 9-0. Without Edelman in the line-up, they were 3-4.  The offense went from averaging 34.5 points a game with Edelman to 27 points per game without him. Third down conversion rate fell over 16% without the wide receiver on the field. Tom Brady personally felt the loss of his reliable receiver, with a significant drop in his passer rating, slower ball release, and more sacks.

Edelman underwent surgery on his left foot soon after his injury in mid-November of 2015. Reports indicated that he had a fifth metatarsal fracture. I discussed this injury in an earlier post “A hammy and Sammy.” Here’s an excerpt:

The 5th metatarsal is the bone on the lateral (outside) border of your foot. It sustains a lot of stress with quick changes of direction. Fractures to this bone can be chronic stress fractures or acute fractures sustained during a single injury. In a stress fracture, initially there is no true break in the bone but the player feels a slowly increasing pain with running and cutting that can culminate in a fracture event. In an acute fracture (which was the case for Edelman) the ankle generally inverts (turns in) and the bone cracks.

The blood supply to the fifth metatarsal isn’t great. Since bloodflow is important for healing, a fracture to the fifth metatarsal takes a while to heal. If the fracture is in a particularly bad location in this bone then it is called a Jones fracture. Jones fractures are often treated surgically to improve the healing time and likelihood that it will heal fully. The idea is that inserting a screw across the fracture site will compress the bone which leads to enhanced healing. Sometimes even surgery and rest are not enough to get this stubborn bone to heal, however.  15-20% of the time the fracture does not heal. In this case, a second surgery may be done to increase the size of the screw and possibly augment with bone grafting. Julian Edelman likely had this procedure in early May when it was reported that he had a second surgery.

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(Photo courtesy of AAOS )

Jones fractures have variable healing times, but the average recovery time is 6-8 weeks after surgery. Dez Bryant broke his fifth metatarsal last year and came back after about 7 weeks but dealt with nagging issues later in the season. Kevin Durant sustained a Jones fracture just before the start of the 2014-15 season and had multiple surgeries throughout the season to try to get it to heal.

Edelman initially returned to play approximately 8 weeks after his injury to play in the divisional round of the playoffs last season. He then suffered a setback over the Spring and reportedly had his second surgery in early May. He returned to training camp August 7th. He had a scare during camp where he seemed to re-aggravate the left foot, but about a week later returned to full team drills and all reports were that he seemed back to his aggressive, agile self.

Since the start of the regular season, however, Edelman does not seem to be his typical self. It was initially difficult to judge – was it just because of the quarterback situation? Were Garoppolo and Brissett just more comfortable throwing in the direction of second team receivers with whom they’d had more practice time? We all hoped that with Brady’s return we would see more of the Julian Edelman who elevated the New England offense to a new level. It did not suprise anyone that Brady’s first pass after his four-game suspension was to number 11.

However, after reviewing game footage from the past two weeks and comparing them with game footage from the last few seasons I noticed a few things about Edelman’s play.

Edelman does not seem to be the first read as often. I don’t know the exact numbers (I’m sure someone in the Twitterverse could help me with that!) but it seems that, since the Patriots have more offensive weapons on the field this year, they don’t need to rely as heavily on number 11. For example, so far we haven’t seen the long receptions from Edelman that we have seen in years past. In the past two games that job has gone to WR Chris Hogan. Additionally, with Martellus Bennett replacing Scott Chandler this season, the unstoppable duo of numbers 87 and 88 have also reduced the load on Edelman. To play devil’s advocate, though, is it possible that the wide receiver is the first read more often than it seems and is he just not getting enough separation quickly enough to be targeted? Or, do the Pats know that he isn’t quite back to 100% so they are intentionally decreasing his targets?

Edelman’s routes are, on average, not as sharp as they were last year. Since he is more often running decoy routes or 2nd and 3rd reads, some of these routes are intentionally softer. But there are times that he turns it on and looks just as sharp as he did prior to his injury.  In my opinion, this return play during last week’s game against the Bengals was the closest Julian Edelman looked to being himself all day.

Overall, I don’t think that Edelman is quite as quick and elusive so far this season as he was prior to his foot injury. This is not shocking to me. A Jones fracture is a painful injury. He has already had one significant setback that required a second surgery, so you can understand that, when he felt some pain in that foot in training camp, he was initially worried that it was a much more significant problem than it turned out to be. In fact, what may have stood out to me most on film was that (1) Julian Edelman is not pulling up lame during routes and (2) there are no signs of Edelman dogging it or limping after the play. Initially I thought that he was hopping more during his runs, but when I went back and looked at game footage from a couple of years ago he was just as jumpy. I do think that Julian is playing more cautiously, however. It’s so hard to say since we really only have two games to judge, but when he does make a catch near the sideline or runs a reverse he has not really made a move back toward the center of the field to avoid the tackle, for example.

Finally, the very fact that the Patriots have Edelman returning punts and running reverses sends a message that they are not overly worried about the health of his foot. While I certainly believe that the foot injury is something to keep a close eye on, I also think that we need to slow our roll a bit on this one. Edelman had a fracture in his foot and had two surgeries to fix it. If it was his arm he would be wearing a massive padded brace like Gronk, but he can’t because it’s his foot. He’s not as quick and elusive as he was before the injury, but he has moments where he runs very well, breaking tackles and ankles downfield. If the foot were truly not healing it would be very difficult to turn it on and off that quickly – it would be painful all of the time. I suspect that as Julian Edelman gets more comfortable with his foot’s “new normal” his confidence and performance will continue to improve.

Follow me on Twitter @jessdeede

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