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How Julian Edelman’s injury affects the Patriots’ offense

The Boston Globe logo The Boston Globe 8/26/2017 By Ben Volin

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Video by CBS Sports

Some notes and observations from the Patriots’ 30-28 preseason win over the Lions on Friday night:

■ Yes, the Patriots have a deep stable of offensive skill players, and yes, they still have quarterback Tom Brady. But losing receiver Julian Edelman will hurt, unquestionably. (The receiver left Friday’s game with a right knee injury. He is expected to undergo an MRI on Saturday.)

After Brady, Edelman is just as valuable to the offense, if not more so, than tight end Rob Gronkowski. Brady drives the offense, but Edelman is the engine. He brings the energy, he moves the chains, and he has built an incredible rapport with Brady over the last four years. Edelman also is one of the best punt returners in the NFL, both in eluding defenders and in making smart decisions.

■ How important is Edelman to the offense? Last year, he led the NFL in third-down receiving yards (431) and was second with 28 catches, averaging 15.4 yards per reception on third downs. He also gained the 11th most receiving first downs in the NFL (55).

Since Week 10 of last season, no receiver in the NFL had more yards per game than Edelman (99.1, including playoffs).

And when Edelman broke his foot during the ninth game of the 2015 season, the offense sputtered considerably.

■ Brady in 2015, nine games with Edelman: 338.1 yards per game, 67.8 completion percentage, 24 touchdowns, three interceptions, 33.7 points per game, 9-0 record.

■ Brady in 2015, seven games without Edelman: 246.7 yards per game, 59.4 completion percentage, 12 touchdowns, four interceptions, 23.1 points per game, 3-4 record.

The Patriots had several other injuries besides Edelman, but they had Brady and a healthy Gronkowski. Meanwhile, the Patriots went 10-0 without Gronkowski last year, though they had much better health across the roster.

■ How to replace Edelman? It would be foolish to think Danny Amendola could simply step in and take Edelman’s spot. Amendola has developed into a nice piece for the Patriots’ offense, having a knack for clutch catches. But the reason Edelman came into being in 2013 was because Amendola couldn’t succeed in the Wes Welker role. Don’t forget that it was Amendola who was supposed to be the next big star, not Edelman. Amendola has had durability issues, and is more likely to log 20-25 snaps per game, rather than 50-60 snaps per game.

Brandin Cooks is a different type of player than Edelman.Cooks is more of an outside threat with blazing top-end speed, rather than a quick, shifty slot receiver. And Chris Hogan is a 6-foot-1-inch deep threat, not Edelman.

Most likely, Brady and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels will have to adjust the scheme to rely more on the tight ends and running backs for the quick, chain-moving passes that usually go to Edelman. Running backs James White and Dion Lewis and tight end Dwayne Allen could all see an uptick in targets. White and Lewis also have experience as slot receivers in the Patriots’ offense.

The Patriots’ offense is deep and versatile, and still should put plenty of points on the board without Edelman. But his absence will definitely be felt. And it’s still only the preseason. More injuries will occur this year.

■ As for Edelman’s roster spot, the Patriots likely have to use it on a receiver, given that Malcolm Mitchell also deals with chronic knee injuries and Amendola always seems to get banged up. If the Patriots want a 1-for-1 replacement, undrafted rookie slot receiver Austin Carr has had a nice camp and could certainly take the roster spot.

Second-year receiver Devin Lucien has also had a good camp, showing a strong ability to attack and come down with the football. He would provide the Patriots with a little more ability on the outside.

And don’t sleep on second-year running back D.J. Foster, who looked solid on Friday night, rushing for 51 yards on 14 carries and adding two catches for 14 yards. Foster played both running back and receiver at Arizona State, catching 222 passes in four years. He can play multiple positions, line up all over the formation, and has added value as a kick returner. He’d be our pick. Carr and Lucien don’t play special teams.

■ Watching Friday’s game, we couldn’t help but notice that 11-year veteran linebacker David Harris looked slow. He led the Patriots with five tackles while playing 36 snaps, but he was often late getting to the ball-carrier and whiffed on a handful of tackles.

It got us wondering if Harris is a lock to make the team. The Patriots did pay him a $1.25 million signing bonus, and while they don’t like burning money, they released offensive lineman Jonathan Cooper last year after paying him more than $1.9 million.

The Patriots have several other talented linebackers, including Donta Hightower, Shea McClellin, Elandon Roberts (whom they like at Mike linebacker and want to give a bigger role this year), Kyle Van Noy, Harvey Langi, and Trevor Bates, who got some run with the starters on Friday.

Harris’s salary this year isn’t big — a $1 million salary, and $1.25 million in per-game and play-time bonuses — but that’s money the Patriots could save by releasing him.

■ Jacoby Brissett didn’t play on Thursday night, which has become an ominous sign for Patriots third-string quarterbacks. In 2013, Tim Tebow didn’t play in the third preseason game, and was later released. In 2014, Ryan Mallett played seven snaps (compared to 24 for Jimmy Garoppolo), then was dumped for a seventh-round pick at the end of camp. In 2015, Ryan Lindley didn’t play, and was later released.

But in 2016, the only time in recent years the Patriots actually kept three quarterbacks, Brady played 16 snaps, Jimmy Garoppolo played 29, and Brissett played 23.

The Patriots had plenty of opportunities to play Brissett on Friday night. Garoppolo entered the game with 1:19 left in the second quarter, and played all five series in the second half. The fact that Brissett never saw the field is not a good sign.

■ Another player who might be in trouble is defensive end Kony Ealy. The fourth-year veteran played 28 snaps, almost exclusively with the backups in the second half, and finished with just one tackle and one quarterback hit. The Patriots are thin at the position, but the Patriots basically got him for nothing from the Panthers, and it will cost them only $100,000 in dead salary cap money to release him.

Undrafted rookie Adam Butler has had a much better camp, and looked great against the Lions, playing 23 snaps (mostly with starters) and finishing with a tackle and two quarterback hits.

■ Malcolm Butler had another inconsistent performance He came up with a forced fumble but was also beaten by Marvin Jones on a 23-yard touchdown. It’s important not to put too much stock into these preseason performances, but Patriots fans should be a little concerned that Butler’s head isn’t totally in the game after squabbling with the team over his contract this offseason.

■ Two aspects of Friday’s game that should make Patriots fans nervous: Cyrus Jones making a fair catch on a punt at his six-yard line, and Stephen Gostkowski hooking an extra point wide left.

Jones’s fair catch was nullified by offsetting penalties, but the Patriots need him to make better decisions as a punt returner, especially with Edelman’s injury.

As for Gostkowski, he did make all three of his field goals, including a clutch 45-yarder at the buzzer. But those extra points might be in his head, and Friday’s hook showed that PATs may be an adventure this season.

Related slideshow: 10 most, least likely Super Bowl matchups (Provided by FOX Sports) 

Super Bowl odds are a popular commodity this time of year as we await the return of football in September. They’re fun to think about and digest, but in the end no one truly knows the fate of every team in the NFL – not even Vegas.However, Golden Nugget casino released odds on Friday for every possible Super Bowl matchup, which is far more extensive than just the odds for every team to win it all. We dug through the entire list, which you can check out here, to find the 10 most and least likely matchups for Super Bowl LII. And we send our apologies to Jets and 49ers fans in advance. It ain’t pretty. 10 most, least likely Super Bowl LII matchups, according to Vegas

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