Before Julian Edelman re-signed with the Patriots in March, he spent time with Jim Harbaugh and the 49ers on a free agent visit. They talked about Edelman’s Bay Area roots, of course, but also Edelman’s background as a college quarterback at Kent State who converted to wide receiver before the 2009 draft.
The Patriots drafted Edelman in the seventh round that year based on his sheer athleticism and potential. Edelman wasn’t involved much in the offense in his first four seasons, catching 69 passes for 714 yards and four touchdowns over that span. But by his fifth season, he had developed into a polished, reliable receiver, and caught 105 passes for 1,056 yards and six touchdowns in 2013.
“It’s really interesting just to talk to him, just how tough it is to play your first year, going from college to pro football,” Harbaugh said. “Where he is now as a player compared to where he was as a rookie really resonated with me.
“He explained it to me, just how tough it is going from college to pro — trying to now defeat press coverage, to then get back to where your spot is, where you’re supposed to be in the route, then thinking about catching the football, and just how difficult it is. And that understanding and putting it all together doesn’t really happen until year three or four.”
“It was very enlightening to me. I never had it explained so clearly to me as the way he did it.”
The transition was difficult for Edelman not just because he didn’t play receiver in college. Wide receivers, and by extension tight ends, are often among the slowest developers in the NFL, given the jump in difficulty and complexity from the college to the professional game.
Consider that some of the best receivers of the last three decades — Larry Fitzgerald, Calvin Johnson, Jerry Rice, and Marvin Harrison — didn’t have 1,000-yard seasons as rookies. Tavon Austin, the first receiver chosen last year at No. 8, had all of 40 catches for 418 yards and four touchdowns for the Rams. The only rookie with 1,000 yards last year was the Chargers’ Keenan Allen (1,046 yards, eight touchdowns) and he was the eighth one taken off the board, No. 76 overall in the third round.
While a handful of late-round receivers do beat the odds — Stevie Johnson, Antonio Brown, Marques Colston, and Edelman among them — very few last more than a couple years in the NFL.
Not only is the skill level of cornerbacks and safeties much higher in the NFL, but defenses are more complex, and receivers are asked to make more split-second decisions — is the defense playing zone or man? Off coverage or press? Did the quarterback just call a hot route?
In college, the player rarely will see press-man coverage or anything but the simplest of zones. In the NFL, having good hands and speed are the minimum requirements. He also must be strong and quick enough to get off the line of scrimmage and create separation.
Many of the top receivers off the board in recent years eventually develop into all-star players — Fitzgerald, Johnson, A.J. Green, Michael Crabtree, Percy Harvin, Demaryius Thomas, and Julio Jones among them. It just takes at least a year or two to get there.
And many top draft picks simply can’t handle the transition, whether it’s the mental responsibilities or the physical demands. The Patriots swung and missed with several second- and third-round receivers over the past decade, including Taylor Price, Brandon Tate, Chad Jackson, and Bethel Johnson.
“There’s not a lot of quality press corners in college football,” said NFL Network’s Mike Mayock. “You get easy access off the line of scrimmage that you don’t necessarily get at the next level. And then No. 2, with having to read on the run in the NFL, a lot of receivers slow down early in their careers because when you are confused, you play slow.”
Patriots coach Bill Belichick and director of player personnel Nick Caserio both said that the unique nature of many college offenses makes the transition tougher for receivers and tight ends. Many teams run up-tempo, no-huddle offenses in which players don’t huddle, look to the sideline for plays, and often run the same three or four routes over and over.
In turn, the up-tempo offense results in basic defensive coverages, since the defense doesn’t have much time to set up anything complex.
“The player stays in one spot, chances are they are repeating the same play,” Caserio said. “The complexity of coverages defensively I would say is minimal, because you can’t have a lot of calls defensively to combat the pace and the speed of what a team is doing offensively.”
But in the NFL, playing receiver is as much mental as it is physical. The Patriots’ passing game is based heavily on the ability of the quarterback and receivers reading the coverages before and during the snap and adjusting their routes accordingly.
“There’s more variety of coverages, there’s more disguise,” Caserio said. “The ability to think quickly and react to what you see, some can do that better than others, from the sheer fact they haven’t been asked to do it.”
Belichick said it’s becoming more common that he meets prospects in the predraft process that never even had a traditional playbook in college, let alone faced NFL-type defenses.
“Instead of hearing a play, they just have an assignment — run a slant, run a go, that type of thing,” Belichick said. “Maybe four, five, six, or seven different components of a play.
“Five years ago, I’d never heard of that. Now, it’s more common.”
The Patriots aren’t likely to draft a receiver this year; they are locked into a top four of Edelman, Danny Amendola, Brandon LaFell, and Aaron Dobson, and if they take anyone, it will be a late-round receiver to compete with Kenbrell Thompkins and Josh Boyce. But they are in the market for a tight end, another position at which transition from college to the NFL is probably more difficult.
In college, many tight ends are glorified slot receivers. But in the NFL, not only do the tight ends have to understand all of the defensive coverages, but also all of the blocking protections in the running and passing games.
“Some of these tight ends, they’re detached from the line of scrimmage on 95, 100 percent of the snaps,” said Caserio. “Well, the likelihood of that player actually doing that on a 70-snap-per-game basis is minimal.
“That’s what they’re dealing with on a weekly basis. We can’t change that. But what you are hopefully able to do is project and say, based on his physical attributes, he may be able to do it.”