A new documentary about former Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman illuminates the improbability of his 12-year NFL career, tracing his journey from undersized quarterback prospect to acclaimed slot receiver.
In the latest episode of NFL Network’s “A Football Life,” which premiered Friday, Edelman discusses his circuitous path to the pros, with commentary from his father Frank, mother Angie, coach Bill Belichick, quarterback Tom Brady, and other former coaches and teammates.
“You can grab every Dorito in the world and still it’s not enough chips to match what Julian had on his shoulder,” said ex-Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski.
The story begins in Redwood City, Calif., where Edelman grew up with his parents, brother Jason, and sister Nicki. Frank coached Pop Warner football, so Edelman became a fan of the sport at an early age. But as he started to play, his small stature quickly became a sore spot.
“I just remember I’d go into my parents’ room crying, like, ‘When am I going to grow?’ ” Edelman recalled.
According to Nicki, Edelman entered high school at less than 5 feet and 100 pounds. He initially played multiple positions on offense and defense but offered to play quarterback his sophomore year because his team needed one. Edelman estimated he measured 5-1 at the time, and joked that he could barely see over his center.
His size didn’t stop him from a productive high school career, culminating in an undefeated senior season. While Edelman wanted to play quarterback at the Division 1 level, he received no interest from four-year colleges or universities, so he decided to attend the College of San Mateo, a two-year institution close to home.
Following a year of junior college, Edelman transferred to Kent State, where he set the school’s season record for total offense as a senior. He participated in the NFL Combine, registering the fastest short shuttle time (3.83 seconds) that year. Though his quickness garnered the attention of scouts, uncertainty remained about his future, given his size and lack of elite tools.
The Patriots, however, took interest after watching his film.
“He couldn’t throw the ball, but he was hard to tackle and he was very competitive and very tough,” Belichick said. “That led to multiple workouts.”
The Patriots ended up selecting Edelman in the seventh round because, as Belichick explained, his traits indicated potential. According to Edelman, Belichick called him and said he didn’t know what position the new draftee was going to play, just that he could play football.
Once in New England, Edelman earned a spot on the 53-man roster as a rookie, joining Wes Welker and Randy Moss in the receiver room. He started as a return specialist but also put up promising offensive numbers, catching 37 passes for 359 yards and a touchdown as a rookie.
The production dipped the ensuing three seasons, however, putting Edelman’s career in jeopardy.
“Julian Edelman was probably almost cut more often than any player that I’ve ever coached,” said former wide receivers coach Chad O’Shea.
“Nobody was looking to get Wes off the field,” Belichick added. “So, how many slot receivers can you play? Jules was still developing.”
But Edelman continued to fight to earn a role, particularly with a concerted effort to form a relationship with Brady.
“Tom spent a lot of offseasons in Los Angeles,” said agent Steve Dubin, who represents both Brady and Edelman. “And Julian would always just follow him around. Not hanging out with him, but just in the chance that Tom would call and say, ‘Do you want to throw?’ ”
Added former Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio: “Tom was hard on Julian the first three to four years of his career.”
When the Patriots did not re-sign Welker in 2013, Edelman saw his opportunity. When the Patriots then signed Danny Amendola to a five-year contract, Edelman took offense.
“I’m not going to lie, I was [ticked] off,” Edelman said. “Looking back at it, I had nothing. I did nothing in the league. But as a kid, as a young guy, experiencing that for the first time, I was like, ‘[Expletive] Belichick, [expletive] the Patriots. I hate everyone here. How are you going to do this to me?’ ”
In response, Edelman, then a free agent for the first time, visited with the Giants but ultimately re-signed with the Patriots on a one-year deal. The decision certainly paid off.
The 2013 season was the first of several productive years for Edelman, who went on to become a favorite target of Brady’s, registering three seasons with more than 1,000 receiving yards and winning three Super Bowl rings.
In Super Bowl XLIX against the Seahawks, Edelman caught nine passes for 109 yards and the go-ahead touchdown with a little more than two minutes remaining. In Super Bowl LI against the Falcons, he caught five passes for 87 yards, highlighted by a miraculous grab in the fourth quarter to keep New England’s comeback hopes alive. And in Super Bowl LIII against the Rams, he was named MVP for his 10-catch, 141-yard performance.
Edelman’s on-field story ended following the 2020 season, when he retired as a result of injuries. But after a dubious start, he’ll go down as a fan favorite and key figure of the Patriots’ dynasty.
And in typical Edelman fashion, he still believes he could contribute today.
“There’s about 12 plays a game I guarantee I could get open and catch a ball right now,” he said with a smile.