Beyond the Big 3: Julian Edelman

Much of the attention around pending Patriots free agent has been paid to Wes Welker, Aqib Talib and Sebastian Vollmer, three of the team's critical starters. But the Patriots have a number of other free agents who could hit the open market one week from tomorrow, and we'll use this space to review them and recap their 2012 season.

Player: Julian Edelman

Position: Wide receiver/punt returner

Key 2012 stats: 21 catches, 235 yards, 3 TD's; 17 punt returns, 15.5 avg, 1 TD

Playing time (offense): 299 of 1,240 snaps (24.1 percent)

2012 season recap: There was a point early in the season when it appeared that Edelman was set to play a large role within the Patriots offense, as he was taking snaps from Wes Welker as one of the Patriots' top two receivers. A Week 3 hand injury put Edelman on the sideline for a few games, and by the time he returned Welker had settled back into a full-time role that wasn't going to be reduced. Edelman had a sensational training camp, is an elite open-field runner and is the only player in the NFL to return at least one punt for a touchdown in each of the past three seasons. He finished the season on injured reserve after breaking his foot, and durability has been an issue for him in four seasons. He's considered one of the hardest workers on the team and has come a long way in four seasons.

Outlook: Bringing Edelman back would give the Patriots their top punt returner and a developing receiving option. If Welker is not back and Edelman is re-signed, he'd likely absorb some of the slot responsibilities that Welker has held because of his open-field running ability. He's a valuable core special teams player as well, which could make him an attractive free agent on the open market. If Welker is re-signed, Edelman may be inclined to look for an opportunity to be a full-time starter with a receiver-needy team elsewhere.

Projection: Re-signed by the Patriots for 3 years, $10 million. It was just last offseason that the Patriots secured Brandon Lloyd for three years and $12 million, and while Edelman has the edge on Lloyd in terms of youth and versatility, he has less of a track record of production. Receiver is a position of need this offseason, and if Edelman stays on his arc of improvement, he'll emerge as a dependable target for Tom Brady.