FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Julian Edelman had to learn to catch the ball instead of throw it when the New England Patriots drafted the Kent State quarterback.
Five years later, the lessons continue.
Besides refining his own techniques, the Patriots’ most productive pass-catcher is getting used to a new veteran wide receiver for the second straight offseason, Brandon LaFell.
“When you’re clicking, you’re not making mental mistakes. You’re going out there. You’re lining up fast,” Edelman said. “Every day’s an experience and I have to work on what I have to do and guys have to work on what they have to do.”
A breakout season with 105 catches? A new four-year, $17 million contract?
Edelman said none of that diminishes his drive to do everything correctly and not make the same mistake twice, lest coach Bill Belichick sharply call his attention to it.
“I’m not really thinking about” the contract, he said after an organized team activity practice. “I’m just trying to think about getting my craft honed down, coming out here and getting used to new teammates, trying to get back on the same page as last year.”
When the Patriots lost Wes Welker to the Denver Broncos after the 2012 season, they signed free agent Danny Amendola from the St. Louis Rams. But he caught just 54 passes with two touchdowns in an injury-plagued season.
He said he’s feeling fine now and has a year of experience in the Patriots’ offensive system.
“All the experience gained is the better for me going into my second year here,” Amendola said.
This year the Patriots added LaFell as a free agent from Carolina. He had between 36 and 49 receptions in each of his four seasons with the Panthers and a total of 13 touchdowns. At 6-feet-2 and 210 pounds, he provides size that Edelman and Amendola lack but is still trying to decipher the playbook.
“I’m used to running a number system and now I’m back to code words, so it’s a lot,” LaFell said. “The quicker I can learn this offense, the quicker I can go out there and be reliable, to play fast and know what I’m doing.”
The Patriots also have three wide receivers they drafted last year. Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins had some good performances but were inconsistent, and Josh Boyce played sparingly.
Dobson had 37 catches, the same as Edelman when he was a rookie, and Thompkins had 32.
Edelman totaled just 32 receptions in the next three seasons with only seven in 2010 and four in 2011. But in 2013, he had at least seven catches in 10 of his 18 games, including the playoffs, and finished fourth in the NFL, earning his new contract.
“I approach it the same,” he said, “go out and do your drills that you do to try to get better. You lift your weights, try to take things from the classroom to grass, try to get better every day.”
That was tough last Thursday during a steady rain throughout practice. But Belichick kept players outside rather than in the team’s indoor facility.
“Coach Belichick harps on this is an opportunity to take advantage of the weather and it does help when you have a few of these practices under your belt,” Edelman said. “You get your confidence up when you do it right one time here and it translates into games.”
Edelman was a long shot to become the Patriots’ leading receiver. The former quarterback was drafted in the seventh round. Had it not been for his skill at returning kickoffs and punts, he might have gone undrafted.
But he’s not concentrating on how far he’s come, from bit player to Tom Brady’s go-to receiver.
“That’s all in the past. You’re more focused on 2014,” Edelman said. “I dropped the ball today in the end zone. There’s a whole lot of things that I’ve got to do to get myself better.”