Now we’ll tackle yet another heavyweight contender, as the New England Patriots have their own conundrum. In a season where they had to overcome a number of losses both on and off the field, they may now lose even more talent to free agency.
With Bill Belichick possibly having to choose between his leading receiver, Julian Edelman, and top cornerback, Aqib Talib, we’ll lay down the arguments for which player is the smarter bet.
The Case for Edelman
By Pete Damilatis
Prior to 2013, Edelman’s biggest contributions came on special teams as a punt returner. It was somewhat of a surprise then, when he finished this season with one of our top 20 receiving grades for a wideout (coincidentally, right behind fellow free agents Eric Decker and Golden Tate). Stepping up when the Patriots had few other weapons to rely on, he more than doubled his career receiving totals across the board and was one of only five players in the league to catch 100 passes.
I was a bit skeptical of Edelman’s ability to fill Wes Welker’s vacated role inside, given that he totaled just eight slot receptions in his three previous seasons combined. But he grabbed 54 receptions from the slot in 2013, third-most of any wide receiver. And, unlike Welker, he still brought solid production when lined up outside.
The success did not come immediately for Edelman, who entered Week 12 with a -1.7 grade. But he went on a tear down the stretch, finishing with eight straight positive overall grades. Over that span, his +13.3 receiving grade was second only to Anquan Boldin, and his 69 catches were 15 more than any other wide receiver. His 10 catches on 14 targets in the AFC Championship was a bright spot in an otherwise dreary day for New England. As the Patriots seemed to be losing offensive weapons by the week, Edelman stepped up when needed most.
That reliability, on an otherwise unreliable receiving corps, is the real reason the Patriots need to bring Edelman back. Rob Gronkowski and Danny Amendola are great when healthy, but good luck guessing when that will be. It’s seemed like ages since New England drafted a high-impact wide receiver, and Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins didn’t buck that trend with pedestrian production and negative grades in their rookie seasons. It spoke volumes when a player who the Patriots released twice during the season, Austin Collie, played 62% of their offensive snaps in the AFC Championship.
Some may think that Edelman is a product of the Patriots’ system, just another above-average player made to look exceptional by Bill Belichick’s offense and Tom Brady’s arm. And that very well may be the case. But that’s likely the opinion held by the rest of the league as well, meaning that New England can probably keep him for cheaper than another receiver coming off a season with 105 catches. Edelman gave the Patriots the leverage to let Welker walk. But there isn’t a successor in place if Edelman exits. His return would bring security to an offense with a lot of question marks.
The Case Against Edelman
By Gordon McGuinness
What’s interesting is that when we rolled out our FA Duels this time last year, I argued the case for Edelman to be re-signed, while Pete argued against it. Fast forward a year and we’ve switched views, with Pete now backing the former seventh round draft pick. My problem with inking Edelman to a long-term deal is that I’m not sure you can’t fill his production through a combination of other players.
Youngsters Dobson and Thompkins showed promise in flashes as rookies, and it’s reasonable to expect an increase in production for those two in 2014. They also get Gronkowski back and, assuming he can stay healthy, he represents a dangerous threat across the field and a safety blanket for Brady. Last year’s free agent addition Amendola is more than capable of filling Edelman’s production from the slot.
Edelman saw 146 passes thrown his way in 2013, 10th in the league, and finished fourth amongst wide receivers with 105 receptions. Yet he finished the year 20th in receiving yards with 1,056 because he averaged just 10.1 yards per catch. That was good for just 100th at his position and, while you can argue that is partly due to receiving a lot of short passes, he was also just 59th with an average of 4.5 yards after the catch per reception. In truth, he just didn’t do an awful lot with the ball in his hands.
The Case For Talib
By Gordon McGuinness
The cornerback position in New England has been the source of some frustration over the past couple of years with plenty of up and down play and not a lot of consistency. Devin McCourty has found his best position at free safety while the likes of Kyle Arrington, Logan Ryan and Alfonzo Dennard have all shown themselves to be capable at times, but looked vulnerable at others. Aqib Talib also fits into that category, but has a higher top level of play than the others.
His 2013 season started very well, with the former Kansas Jayhawk grading out at +8.2 through the first six weeks of the season. He missed the next three games through injury, however, and struggled to regain that early-season form. Not afraid to get physical with receivers, he has recorded five interceptions and 10 pass breakups in 27 games with the Patriots.
He’s not without his faults, some of which have come off the field in the past, but that is something that will help the Patriots, with some teams likely to still be scared off by his past. Considering he allowed a reception once every 12.8 snaps in coverage, 13th amongst cornerbacks, the opportunity for the team to bring him back without breaking the bank sounds fairly appealing.
Watching Talib it feels like he’ll never be one of the league’s best cornerbacks, but it’s also likely that they won’t have to pay him as such and, while there are better players than him available, signing him to a sensible contract allows them to spend money elsewhere. On the defensive line, for example, where they could do with adding a quality edge rusher to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
The Case Against Talib
By Pete Damilatis
There are times where Talib does look like the best cornerback in football, and for the first month of this season he arguably was. Gordon noted his great start, and everyone took notice when he shut down some of the NFL’s best receivers in September. However, fewer paid attention to how much he struggled after his injury (clearly, considering that he was still voted to the Pro Bowl).
In those final seven weeks of the regular season, only seven defenders allowed more yards in coverage. The Patriots continued to put him on an island against the league’s best receivers, but he clearly wasn’t up to the task anymore. Take a look at Talib’s numbers in coverage before and after his injury:
|Comp% Allowed||QB Rating Allowed||INT/PD||PFF Coverage Grade|
|First 6 Games||39.9%||28.9||9||+6.1|
|Last 9 Games||66.6%||121.1||2||-12.1|
I’d be willing to chalk up Talib’s late-season decline to poor health, but he has a career-long pattern of hot streaks that fizzled out too soon. He started with a +3.9 coverage grade in his first four games last season, but was first suspended, then traded, and eventually earned a -3.8 mark the rest of the way. In each of his prior two seasons, strong second-half finishes were derailed by a trip to the Injured Reserve. Even his early exit in this year’s playoff loss marked the second straight AFC Championship he had to leave prematurely. And that’s not even getting into Talib’s off-field issues that make him a big risk for further suspension.
Talib is not as bad as his -5.2 coverage grade this season indicates, as the Patriots certainly ask a lot of him. But he’s certainly not as good as his hot start led some to believe. He’s just as likely to disappoint the Patriots next season as he is to dominate for them. Edelman will be the more reliable player for the greater position of need, with a lower price tag to boot. If the Patriots can only keep one of these two, the receiver is the better investment.
If you were the Patriots general manager and could keep only one, would you opt for Edelman or Talib? Make your case in the comments section.