Is Julian Edelman a Safe Bet in Fantasy Football?

What can fantasy football managers expect out of Patriots slot receiver Julian Edelman this season?

Nothing is certain in fantasy football.

Injuries and suspensions can strike any player at any time, and you can go from having a stud at a key position to scrambling for their replacement in an instant.

Just ask the Adrian Peterson or Ray Rice owner from last season, or anyone who has drafted Arian Foster, Kelvin Benjamin, or Jordy Nelson this year if you don't believe me.

But at the same time, for a handful of athletes -- assuming a full healthy season, of course -- there are a number of outcomes that are as sure a bet as you can possibly get in this game.

Every year you know that Drew Brees is going to throw for at least 4,000 yards, Dez Bryant is going to catch double digit touchdowns, and Adrian Peterson is going to run for more than 1,000 yards on the ground.

This year, Julian Edelman finds himself manning the coveted slot receiver position on the New England Patriots for a third-straight season. Given the production that has flowed through this role with Tom Brady under center and Bill Belichick calling the shots, is it time we add Edelman to this list as a sure bet?

The Prototypical Slot Receiver

A three-year starting quarterback at Kent State and the Patriots' seventh round pick in 2009, Julian Edelman, has used his time in New England wisely, picking up the nuances of the slot receiver position and pairing this with his athleticism and versatility to emerge as one of the best at the position today.

When we compare Edelman to the man he took the position over from in Wes Welker, we see that the two match up very favorably to each another.

Name Yr Ht Wt 40-yd Bench Vert Broad 20-ss 3Cone
Julian Edelman 2009 5' 10" 195 4.52 14 36.5 123 3.91 6.62
Wes Welker 2004 5' 9" 186 4.65 12 30 113 4.01 7.09

Built similarly to Welker, Edelman put forth Pro Day numbers that actually edge out Welkers' marks in every category. This includes slightly better agility scores than the All Pro wideout. On this note, Edelman's 3.91 short shuttle time was faster than the best mark put up at the Combine that year (3.96).

And as we'll soon discuss, this type of athleticism is critical for Edelman's role with the Patriots.

A big reason for this is because playing the slot means you're often tasked with the short, dump-off routes in the offense. While this often means players in this role are looked to often in the passing game, it also means that these receivers are limited to a very low average depth of target (aDOT) compared to those lining up on the outside.

Indeed, while Edelman saw 134 targets and caught 92 of them to rank 12th in the league in catch rate, he averaged an aDOT of just 7.6 yards in 2014.

As a result, slot receivers are forced to do much of their damage after the catch. And this is exactly what made Welker such an effective weapon for the Patriots all those years.

In his final two years in New England, Welker led the league in yards after catch, breaking loose for 732 yards in 2011 and 702 yards in 2012. Not to be outdone, Edelman himself has ranked in the top 10 in each of the last two years as the starting slot wideout in New England.

And despite the big shoes he's been asked to fill, Edelman has actually done quite admirably filling in for Welker. His Reception Net Expected Points (NEP) per target of 0.64 in just his second season as the Patriots' full-time slot wideout is more or less in line with Welker's average of 0.69 that he put up over his six-year career with the Patriots.

For those unfamiliar, NEP is our in-house metric that measures a player's contributions to a team's chances of scoring above or below expectation. A positive NEP means a player improved his team's scoring opportunity, and as you might expect, a negative score means the opposite.

So on a per-target basis, Edelman's contributions to the Patriot's chances of scoring last year were nearly equal to the production that Welker gave New England between 2007 and 2012.

Beyond all this, Edelman doesn't just measure up well to Welker. He can hold his own when compared to some of the best slot receivers currently in the game today.

When we measure him up against some of the more heralded slot receivers being taken ahead of him in fantasy football drafts this year, we see that he stacks up very favorably to these other wideouts:

Name Yr Ht Wt 40-yd Bench Vert Broad 20-ss 3Cone
Julian Edelman 2009 5' 10" 195 4.52 14 36.5 123 3.96 6.62
Randall Cobb 2011 5' 10" 185 4.46 16 33.5 115 4.34 7.08
Emmanuel Sanders 2010 5' 9" 180 4.41   36 102    
Jordan Matthews 2014 6' 3" 212 4.46   35.5 120 4.18 6.95
Brandin Cooks 2014 5' 10" 189 4.33 16 36 120 3.81 6.76

Edelman trumps Green Bay's Pro Bowl wideout Randall Cobb in both explosiveness (as measured by their vertical and broad jump) and agility (as measured by the 20-yard short shuttle and three-cone drill). He also beats Denver's Emmanuel Sanders, Philadelphia's Jordan Matthews, and New Orleans' Brandin Cooks in nearly all these measures despite these three young wideouts being drafted a full round or two ahead of him in drafts this season.

From this, It's apparent that just like the aforementioned, much-hyped wide receivers, Edelman has the physical capability to win in the exact same situations that these other players have been known to succeed in.

A Productive Role in New England

So what can we expect out of Edelman in another year as the Patriots' starting slot receiver?

To begin, let's first take a look at some historical numbers for this position in New England.

Over the last eight seasons, the starter in this role in each season (six from Welker and two from Edelman) has, on average, turned 151 targets per year into 109 receptions, 1,186 yards, and 5.9 touchdowns.

The productivity from this position reached its peak in 2011, Welker's career year. In this season, Welker amassed 122 receptions, 1,569 yards, and 9 touchdowns on 173 targets to finish second only to Calvin Johnson at the position in PPR-scoring leagues (and third in standard-scoring leagues behind Megatron and Jordy Nelson for that matter).

And this wasn't a case of the Patriots having no other weapons to go to that season; in this same year tight end Rob Gronkowski put up an amazing 1,327 yards and 17 touchdowns on 120 targets.

In line with the averages put up by the starter at this position over the past eight years discussed above -- in 15 games per season -- Edelman has put up a very impressive 99 receptions, 1,014 yards, and 5 touchdowns on 143 targets per year in this role himself.

Quite the productive and highly targeted position, just once (in Welker's 2010 season where he entered the year rehabbing a knee injury from the year prior) has the starting slot receiver for the Patriots failed to catch more than 90 receptions.

So with all this being said, and after establishing Edelman's athletic ability to play the slot receiver role, it's safe to say that Edelman is a serious candidate to catch at least 90 receptions for 1,000 yards this upcoming season. ( Our algorithms project him for 89 catches and 969 yards.)

While this may be Edelman's floor, his ceiling could be much, much higher.

The Patriots have lost a number of playmakers in the secondary this offseason, parting ways with Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner, and Kyle Arrington -- their three starting cornerbacks from Super Bowl XLIX. With the team now relying on cornerback-turned-safety Devin McCourty, Oakland cast-off Tarell Brown, and underwhelming ex-Eagle Bradley Fletcher to defend against opposing passing offenses, this likely means that the Patriots will find themselves in a few more shootouts than they were in last year.

This bodes very well for Edelman's projected usage in 2015.

In Welker's career year in 2011, the Patriots defense put up the fourth-worst Defensive NEP numbers when adjusted for strength of schedule, with their mark of 0.09 per play being better than only San Diego (0.09), Carolina (0.12), and Tampa Bay (0.12).

And what, at first glance, looks like it may hurt Edelman's value in the short-term, Tom Brady's four-game suspension to start the season may actually boost the slot wideouts' numbers.

As I mentioned before, the slot receiver is often tasked with the short, dump-off routes in the offense, and it is these sames routes that backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo will likely be looking to lean on as he fills in for Brady, treating Edelman as his security blanket of sorts.

Expectations for 2015

On a per-game basis over the past two years, Edelman has averaged a respectable 6.6 receptions for 67.6 yards and 0.3 touchdowns. This adds up to 15.3 fantasy points per game in PPR-scoring leagues, which would have ranked Edelman as the 14th best wideout in this format last year. But as we've just discussed, with the arrow pointing up for Edelman in 2015, this likely marks his floor for this year.

There are limitations to Edelman's upside, however. As an undersized, short-yardage receiver, his lack of red zone and big play usage means he likely won't be putting up Odell Beckham numbers this year.

All this suggests that Edelman is nearly a sure bet to return the WR2 value his managers will be looking for when they invest a early-to-mid round pick on the talented New England receiver, making him well worth his current fourth-round asking price as the 18th receiver off the board in PPR leagues.