ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- Sunday started well for Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman, who earned a $40,000 bonus for being on the 53-man roster for Week 1.
There was little doubt that Edelman would make the roster based on his talents, but after ending last season on injured reserve due to a foot injury that he suffered a setback on this offseason, the team restructured his contract by transitioning 80 percent of his offseason workout bonus into the Week 1 roster bonus.
For Edelman, his future in New England was tied to his recovery. He wasn’t fully up-to-speed at the start of training camp, but he returned to the field on August 1 and has stayed healthy since.
He was lost in the shuffle, the preseason buzz instead surrounding the Patriots talented quartet of rookie pass catchers. But it was Edelman who emerged as the complement to Danny Amendola for the Patriots on Sunday, scoring both of the team’s passing touchdowns and hauling in seven total catches for 79 yards.
In his first regular season game since early December of 2012, Edelman was happy to be back where he is at his best.
“It felt great,” he said following the game. “That’s why I play the game. I love this game and anytime you get to go out there with the guys that you work hard with, you train with, and all that kind of stuff, it feels good.”
For Edelman, whose work ethic has been consistently praised by his coaches and teammates -- notably quarterback Tom Brady -- Sunday was more than just a payday, it was the pay off of his efforts, too. (As if the offensive output wasn’t enough, Edelman also became the NFL’s all-time leader in punt return average, qualifying for the category after posting his 75th career return).
He wasn’t the only talented skill player to put his best on display Sunday. Running back Shane Vereen, himself seeking consistency in his third pro season, racked up a career-best rushing effort with 101 yards on 14 carries.
What worked well for Vereen was having the football in space through perimeter runs and as a pass-catcher, which took advantage of his open-field running ability and make-you-miss moves.
“As a running back, you want the ball anytime you can and when they trust you with the ball, you’ve got to be able to produce and make plays with it and we were able to do that today,” he said.
Though the Patriots had planned on Vereen leading running backs in both in carries (14) and total touches (21), critical turnovers by starter Stevan Ridley translated into a busy second half for Vereen. Ridley did not play a single snap after losing a second-quarter fumble.
“You can never predict what the coaching decision is going to be, you just have to stay ready and be ready when your number is called,” Vereen said of his preparation.
That’s something he is already used to in his brief NFL career, as Sunday marked his 19th regular season game, only one of which he’s started.
With Ridley proving to be a workhorse runner who can help the Patriots control the clock and tempo of the game, Vereen mostly served as a change-of-pace player during his first two seasons.
With Danny Woodhead now in San Diego, it’s Vereen who looks most likely to absorb his role as the team’s up-tempo running back, as we saw on Sunday.
Even before Ridley was benched, Vereen was used as the running back when the team turned to its three- and four-wide receiver sets, while Ridley earned most of the reps in two-back, two-receiver looks.
But when Ridley put the ball on the ground, it was Vereen who picked up his slack, setting himself up to further blossom within the team’s offense this season.
And yet, coming off of his most impressive day as a pro, Vereen wasn’t interested in talking about himself.
“I think it’s more important that the team won today,” he said. “Honestly, that’s our goal every week. That’s why we practice, that’s why we go through camp, OTAs and everything, so that we can come in a hostile environment and play against a good team, a good defense and come out with a W.”
Sunday was just the first task for the Patriots and it proved to be a stiffer one than many anticipated. The resilient Bills kept things tight for 60 minutes, something the Jets will aim to do when they travel to Foxborough for a Thursday night primetime game this week.
Entering the regular season, many presumed the Patriots would lean heavily on Danny Amendola and their rookie pass catchers to lead the charge through the air and Stevan Ridley catalyzing the ground game.
But Week 1 served as a reminder that it is the depth of this offense around Brady that has allowed it to succeed from one year to the next, with Edelman and Vereen the latest to emerge at a time their team needed it.