FOXBOROUGH — There are many college players who reinvent themselves on the football field if it means even an outside shot of making it to the NFL.
Julian Edelman isn’t one of them. The fifth-year receiver for the Patriots is part of a much smaller fraternity. Edelman reached the NFL, then transformed himself into something totally different once he got there.
His days as a quarterback ended on Nov. 28, 2008, when he threw for 114 yards in Kent State’s 24-21 season-ending comeback victory at Buffalo. Nearly five years later, on a different field but in the same city and in similar comeback fashion, the new Edelman was on full display. He caught two touchdown passes from Tom Brady, and became the NFL’s career leader in punt-return average as the Patriots opened their season with a 23-21 win Sunday over the Bills.
Come Thursday night, when the Patriots welcome the New York Jets to Gillette Stadium for their home opener, Edelman might be asked to assume another role, this one his most important yet.
In his first four years with the team, he has been a versatile and productive complementary piece. But with a number of key offensive teammates expected to miss the game because of injury, Edelman could very well be counted on for some heavy lifting.
If you quiz Edelman about his evolution, he’ll liken himself to any employee in any other line of work, simply being asked by the boss to try a different job every once in a while.
“I’m out here just trying to do my job, and that’s what I’ve done the last four years,” Edelman said. “I’m here just trying to contribute, and whatever the coaches ask me to do, I’m going to do.”
Patriots coaches have asked Edelman to do plenty.
“We’ve seen Julian do a lot of different things for us,” said Bill Belichick. “He’s returned kicks, he’s covered kicks, he’s played defense, he’s run with the ball, he’s caught the ball. He has a lot of different skills and we’ve used him in a lot of different ways with the ball in his hands.
“Versatility is definitely one of his strengths. He’s a tough kid, he’s a good competitor, he has good body strength, he’s got some speed, and he’s got quickness. He’s got a lot of things going for him.”
Edelman might be thrust into a starring gig against the Jets. Tight end Rob Gronkowski (back/forearm) isn’t expected to play, Shane Vereen (wrist) was placed on injured reserve and will miss at least the next eight games, and Danny Amendola, like Gronkowski, is doubtful, with a groin injury. Vereen had 159 total yards against Buffalo, while Amendola caught 10 passes for 104 yards.
Without so many options on offense — tight end Zach Sudfeld could also miss Thursday’s game with a hamstring injury — Edelman is one of the few veteran faces healthy enough for Brady to throw to.
Will that mean anything?
“I think Tom looks for the open receiver,” Edelman said. “I’m just trying to win a route every time, and if the ball comes to me, it comes to me. And if it doesn’t, I’m going to go out and try to make a block, do my job.”
With Edelman coming off a game in which he caught seven passes for 79 yards and the two touchdowns, an assumption can be made that he is expecting to ride that momentum and build off the season opener. That assumption would be wrong.
“It’s in the past, regardless if you do good or bad,” said Edelman. “It’s a new game and a completely different team. The more you’re thinking about [having a bigger role], the less you’re thinking about your opponent, and all we’re thinking about are the New York Jets right now.”
Edelman missed the final four games of the 2012 regular season, plus the playoffs, with a foot injury. When the season ended, he became an unrestricted free agent, but there wasn’t much of a market for an injured, undersized receiver. So he re-signed with the Patriots on April 11, agreeing to a one-year deal.
The signing didn’t make much news then. With so many injuries on offense, its significance is being felt now.
“Julian has always been a versatile guy for us, he’s been able to play multiple positions,” offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said. “He can make plays on the perimeter, and he can go inside and do some of the things inside that we ask him to do.
“He came up with quite a few big catches for us [in Buffalo], and certainly a few big plays for us in the red zone and on third down that were really critical for us.”
With a 2-yard punt return in the fourth quarter, Edelman also made history. It gave him 75 career punt returns, enough to make him eligible for the league’s all-time record for highest average, which he holds at 13.0. Edelman has taken one punt back for a touchdown each of the past three seasons and is coming off a career-best 15.5-yard average. Often overlooked, it’s a part of the game that can swing momentum, especially when you have such a skilled threat back there like Edelman.
“We value it quite a bit, I don’t think it’s underrated at all,” Belichick said. “Another example of Julian — he never returned punts [in college], he came into the NFL, learned how to do it.
“All the positions really that he’s played in the NFL — covering kicks, returning kicks, slot receiver, outside receiver, slot defender — he didn’t do any of those things in college. I’d say that’s pretty unusual, especially to be as competent in them as he is.”
On Monday, Jets coach Rex Ryan likened Edelman and Amendola to another short, shifty slot receiver the Patriots once had, calling them Wes Welker clones. It was meant as high praise, but Edelman isn’t interested in the comparison.
“Wes is a good buddy of mine, and it’s unfair to say that for a guy who’s done it consistently for a long time,” Edelman said. “I’m not trying to replace Welker. I’m not worried about Wes. Wes is in Denver. I’m worried about the New York Jets and having a divisional game this Thursday.”Michael Whitmer can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer.