INDIANAPOLIS — In an era of pro football specialization, when long snappers and kickoff specialists can claim full-time spots on NFL rosters, Julian Edelmanis likely to play on offense, defense and special teams for the New England Patriots before Sunday’s Super Bowl is over.
Edelman is penciled in as the Patriots’ punt returner against the New York Giants. He will line up at times at wide receiver, the position the Patriots drafted him to play in 2009 after a college career as a quarterback at Kent State. And he probably will play a significant number of snaps at cornerback, the spot he has quickly learned this season after the Patriots coaches decided to use him on defense in a November game against the New York Jets.
“It kind of just came up and they said, ‘You’re going to be in the defensive meeting today,’ ” Edelman said as he stood on the field Tuesday at Lucas Oil Stadium on Super Bowl media day. “You’re not going to turn down an opportunity, so I went with it.”
Triple-threat performers are exceedingly rare in the NFL. One of the last to do it was another Patriots wide receiver, Troy Brown, who was pressed into service on previous teams coached by Bill Belichick.
“It’s unbelievable,” Patriots wide receiver Matthew Slater said Tuesday. “To do it at the highest level — I remember doing that in high school. It was like, ‘Oh, man, get me off the field.’ You really respect Julian, how unselfish he’s been all year. He’s trying to do whatever it takes for the team to have success.”
Edelman’s offensive production has declined since he had 37 catches as a rookie for the Patriots in 2009. He had seven catches last season and only four this season. But he has remained an effective punt returner, averaging a franchise-record 15.3 yards per return last season and 10.6 yards per return this season. And now he gives the Patriots another option to cover opposing receivers who line up in the slot.
The Giants hope to take advantage of Edelman’s inexperience at the position, according to comments attributed in recent days to wide receiver Mario Manningham.
Manningham was asked again Tuesday about facing Edelman, and said: “We know he’s a great player but we want to go out and do what we have to do to win, no matter what it takes. He plays wide receiver. He’s not a real defensive back. Did he get drafted as a defensive back? . . . We’re confident. I hope he’s out there.”
Edelman declined to respond directly to Manningham’s comments. “I’m not really worried what Mario Manningham is saying right now,” he said. “I’m more focused on doing my job, and that’s preparing right now.”
But Edelman said he doesn’t think opposing offenses have targeted him this season.
“I don’t think I’ve had that many [passes] caught on me,” he said. “Not that I’m doing such a great job. But the coaches have done a great job helping me out with the scheme and preparing me each week for what I have to focus on, instead of focusing on the big picture of the defense.”
Edelman, who is listed at 5 feet 10 and 198 pounds, played quarterback in junior college and then at Kent State, but drew little interest from NFL teams at that position. He passed up an opportunity to play quarterback in the Canadian Football League.
“I wasn’t mad that people said I couldn’t play quarterback,” he said. “It was kind of the transition of what I needed to do. I’m 5-10 and this is the NFL. There’s only one guy that’s done it and that’s Doug Flutie. I’d be going against the odds.”
The Patriots, who liked him as a potential wide receiver and kick returner, made him a seventh-round draft pick.
“You just had to go on what you saw of him as a quarterback,” Belichick said. “You had to go on a workout, an interview with him and just try to get a sense of whether or not you thought he could make that transition to returning kicks and playing as a receiver. The defensive thing happened later.”
Edelman said he never played defense, even in high school. But when he made the transition to part-time defender this season, he was welcomed by the other members of a New England secondary that was short-handed because of injuries.
“Julian has that mentality of, ‘If you put me somewhere, I’m going to play hard,’ ” said Patriots safety Patrick Chung. “So we saw him in the meeting room and it was: ‘Hey, Julian, what’s up? You came over to the defense?’ But it wasn’t surprising.”
Edelman said he gradually has picked up the terminology of the Patriots’ defense and no longer needs a coach to translate the defensive terms for him. He said he has studied veteran cornerbacks from other teams, such as Ronde Barber and Charles Woodson, to pick up techniques and see what offenses do against them. And he’s content doing whatever he’s asked to do, he said.
“I’m living a dream, first off,” Edelman said. “You grow up wanting to play in the National Football League. At least I did. I didn’t want to play in the CFL . . .
“I’ll take this any day. I’m a football player and that’s what I like to do, whether it’s offense or defense, quarterback, running back, this, that. As long as I’m on the field and able to do something I love, it’s exciting.”