Sophomore splash for Edelman

Edelman stars for Pats (0:42)

Mike Reiss discusses Julian Edelman's big day vs the Saints (0:42)

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- When Wes Welker did not play last season, then-rookie wide receiver Julian Edelman stepped in. When Welker did not play on Thursday night against the New Orleans Saints in the preseason opener, it was again Edelman who was called upon to take over Welker’s role.

Just like 2009, Edelman quickly exceeded expectations Thursday, returning a Saints punt 40 yards to put the Patriots in the red zone for their first possession of the game. He went on to lead the team with six receptions for 90 yards, all in just over one half of football.

After the game, coach Bill Belichick lauded Edelman’s progress since being drafted in the seventh round last year.

“He's improved steadily since the day he got here, for a guy that never played receiver until a little over a year ago at this time,” Belichick said. “He's still learning and he's still getting better.”

Edelman’s emergence has sparked comparisons to Welker, who shares Edelman’s frame and playing style. A quarterback at Kent State, Edelman deflected the comparison to his teammate Thursday night.

“It’s unfair to [Welker]. He’s the best slot [receiver] in the game,” Edelman said.

Instead, Edelman credits Welker for his own continued improvement.

“I learn everything [from him]. … Wes has been a huge part of helping me develop and still is,” he said.

With Welker expected to be eased back into game action this preseason, the time will soon come for both Edelman and Welker to share the field again.

“He’s still out there and he’s running routes, and I’m still learning things," Edelman said. "I’m watching his film, and it’s great to have him around.”