FOXBOROUGH – Whether he’s behind the wheel of a pace car at a NASCAR race, as he was earlier this month at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, or tracking a Tom Brady throw, or settling beneath a sky-scraping punt, Julian Edelman has always cut a dashing figure for the Patriots.
The versatility Edelman has displayed in his NFL career, returning kicks, covering kicks, playing slot receiver, outside receiver, slot defender — in short, all the positions he never played at Kent State, where as a senior dual-threat quarterback in 2008 he amassed a career-high 3,190 yards total offense — earned him a handsome four-year contract extension in March worth a reported $19 million, including a $17 million base ($8 million guaranteed).
“You know, I’ve been here a couple of years and I’ve never really worried about that kind of stuff,’’ Edelman said, referring to the whopping raise he earned over the one-year, $715,000 contract he signed last offseason as an unrestricted free agent.
“As you know, it’s an unpredictable business, and I’m just trying to go out there in my role and do what I can to improve every day.’’
Even if it means returning punts again this season?
“I love returning punts,’’ said Edelman, who set a franchise record with his 94-yard punt return for a touchdown at Miami Jan. 2, 2011, and for single-season punt return average (15.5) in 2012.
“That’s a part of the game that gave me the opportunity to make this team,’’ said the 2009 seventh-round draft choice (232d overall). “I love returning punts. I love [special teams] Coach [Scott] O’Brien, I love his scheme, I love all that stuff. I would love to do that.
“If they ask me to do it, I’m going to do it.’’
Edelman could be asked, however, to scale back his special teams work, especially now that he’s emerged as one of Brady’s favorite targets. Last season, Edelman broke 1,000 receiving yards for the first time in his career, leading the Patriots with 105 receptions for 1,056 yards (10.1 average) and six touchdowns.
Four times last season, Edelman eclipsed 100 yards receiving and twice made 10 receptions in games, vs. the Jets in Week 2 and at Miami in Week 15. He also had a pair of two-TD games, at Buffalo in the season opener and vs. the Broncos in Week 12.
He also returned 35 punts for 347 yards (10.7 avg.), including a long of 43 yards, giving him 1,321 career punt return yards. His career return average of 12.3 yards is tied for fourth-highest in NFL history.
There’s little wonder then that Edelman came to camp this season with a bounce in his step as he entered his sixth season with the Patriots. His breakout season was capped just before the start of camp by the thrilling experience of serving as the pace car driver at NHMS, where pole-sitter Kyle Busch playfully bumped Edelman from behind during the pace lap.
“It was good to help me actually set the pace for what our times were on our conditioning runs,’’ Edelman joked. “It was a fun experience and I appreciated it. You get an appreciation for that sport when you see it up close.’’
Upon closer inspection, Edelman’s NFL experience has been replete with several challenges, including the adjustment to all the new positions he never played in college. But the toughest? It wasn’t serving as Wes Welker’s understudy early on his career. It was, simply, a matter of gaining Brady’s trust.
“It’s pretty tough, I’m not going to lie,’’ Edelman said. “When you’ve played with a guy for so long and have been in the same system and have played with a lot of phenomenal players, a lot of great players in the past, he’s expecting a lot because he’s seen it done, so, you know, it’s tough.’’
Once Brady’s trust is earned, it can never be taken for granted, Edelman has learned.
“The way you earn his trust is just going out there and being consistent and always improving, seeing what he’s seeing and being on the same page,’’ Edelman said. “I’m trying to go out there this year and earn that trust again.’’
When the Patriots resume training camp work Tuesday, Edelman will be back at it again, honing his craft, perfecting his pass routes, and building upon his quarterback’s trust in him.
“Confidence is built through execution and in practice when you do it consistently,’’ Edelman said. “So when you’re out there consistently doing the right assignment, making a play, and doing what you have to do at a high rate, that’s when you can go out and play your fastest and play with the utmost of confidence.’’
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The Patriots claimed rookie running back Tyler Gaffney off waivers from the Panthers. Carolina waived the sixth-round pick out of Stanford with the intention of placing him on injured reserve. He hurt his knee on the first day of training camp and will require season-ending knee surgery.
The Patriots will be responsible for his $420,000 salary this season.