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Patriots receiver Edelman branches out to defense

Patriots wide receiver and kick returner Julian Edelman began playing defensive back this season. (Associated Press)
Patriots wide receiver and kick returner Julian Edelman began playing defensive back this season. (Associated Press)

Julian Edelman’s role models in football have gradually evolved.

As an undersized quarterback with a big arm growing up in Redwood City, Calif., he wanted to be the next Doug Flutie.

As a dual-threat quarterback at Kent State, he became the next Josh Cribbs, his 3,371 yards of total offense in 2008 breaking Cribbs’ single-season record.

Now in his third year as a wide receiver and kick returner with the New England Patriots, Edelman has turned into Troy Brown.

Edelman has played three ways this season for the Patriots, who are headed to Super Bowl XLVI in Indianapolis with the New York Giants.

Edelman, 5-foot-10 and 198 pounds, caught just four passes for 34 yards in 2011. The seventh-round pick in 2009 also returned punts and kickoffs, earning AFC special teams player of the week honors after scoring on a 72-yard punt return Nov. 21 against the Kansas City Chiefs. Edelman brought back 28 punts for a 10.7-yard average, sixth in the AFC. Edelman’s 12 kickoffs weren’t enough to qualify for the league list, although he averaged 23.7 yards.

But on Nov. 13 against the New York Jets, Edelman also began playing defensive back. He’s following in the footsteps of Brown, a former Patriots wide receiver who made the same contribution during New England’s Super Bowl run in 2004.

Close call

In last Sunday’s AFC championship victory over the Baltimore Ravens, Edelman found himself trying to cover receiver Anquan Boldin man-to-man on the Ravens’ final drive.

Edelman made one play, but Boldin caught four passes for 59 yards as the Ravens moved into position for Billy Cundiff’s game-tying 32-yard field-goal attempt, which Cundiff missed with 11 seconds left.

Playing in the slot, Edelman said he wasn’t overwhelmed by the enormity of his challenge defending Boldin.

“I never really thought of it,” Edelman told the Providence Journal on Monday. “You really can’t think of it like that. If you do, he’ll run right by you or you won’t be doing your job.”

What the Patriots have done with Edelman is not out of character for coach Bill Belichick.

In 2001, he signed free-agent linebacker Mike Vrabel, who was also used at tight end in goal-line situations and finished his career with 12 receptions, all for touchdowns, including two in the Super Bowl.

In 2004, Belichick converted Brown to defensive back. Brown finished with three interceptions, tying for second on the team, as the Patriots won their third Super Bowl in a span of four years.

When Edelman was asked to play defense, he didn’t seem fazed by the switch.

“We were a little thin, and Coach Belichick asked me to do it,” Edelman told the Boston Herald on Nov. 21. “You’re not going to say no to an opportunity.”

Making it work

Belichick said Edelman’s dual role was precipitated largely by injuries, but that Edelman’s athleticism has made it work.

“Julian has those skills to be able to compete at that position for the same reasons he can do that on offense,” Belichick said Thursday. “(Some of what) you want for the defender to cover that receiver are the same things that make him a competitive slot receiver.”

Edelman was well aware of the contributions of Brown, who served as an honorary captain for last week’s AFC championship game.

“I know Troy Brown pretty well; I’ve talked to him a couple times,” Edelman said in November. “He’s a stud. He’s done everything; he’s like a Swiss Army knife.”

Now in Edelman the Patriots have another multipurpose “knife” who hopes to carve his own slice of history.