Why Edelman could slip away

By now, the story of Julian Edelman's 2013 rise to prominence is well-known.

From longtime reserve to 105-catch star, he far exceeded expectations during his fifth NFL season.

And while Edelman's breakout year can in some ways be used to argue against ponying up big dough to retain the free-agent wide receiver -- after all, he was paid just over $1 million last season -- the Patriots must look long and hard at bringing him back.

A quarterback in college, Edelman has excellent quickness, short-area burst, toughness and many of the other requisite traits to man the slot in the NFL. But he isn't limited to the slot, as we saw throughout last season.

He has the precise route running and downfield speed to play the "Z" -- or flanker -- position, a critical one in the Patriots' pass attack.

He brings an abundance of special-teams value as one of the better punt returners in the league, consistently setting up the Patriots' offense with good field position while also wisely judging and handling punts.

He's indefatigable in his approach (he's routinely the first player to enter the practice facility during the season) and just 27 years old.

In other words, there's a lot to like.

But there are two sides to every debate, and as mentioned already, Edelman's 2013 season, in some ways, is an argument against re-signing him.

If the Patriots can generate such significant production out of a player few thought was capable of it, who is to say the team can't frugally find the next Edelman?

Additionally, 2013 was the first time that Edelman played a full 16-game season. He has dealt with injuries throughout his career, including a foot issue that lingered last offseason and seemingly dulled his market value in free agency.

But it's risky business to count on unearthing another hidden gem during a time when the team's best pass-catcher -- tight end Rob Gronkowski -- is recovering from yet another major surgery.

Tom Brady may not look 36 years old on the field, but the clock's ticking, and the Patriots can't sit around and wait for their young pieces to come around. Their optimal window to add another Super Bowl trophy to their case is in the next four seasons, the years remaining on Brady's contract.

While Edelman had virtually no publicly documented suitors outside of New England last offseason (he did visit the Giants, but there was no reported interest from other teams), that is likely to change this time around.

The lead-up to free agency can be a game of connect-the-dots, so we'll take a shot of our own.

The Texans, in need of a slot presence under new coach Bill O'Brien, could court Edelman. The familiarity factor is obvious.

The Chiefs are at risk of losing slot wideout Dexter McCluster, and Edelman would give quarterback Alex Smith another weapon to work with.

The Browns, equipped with seemingly unlimited cap space, recently released Davone Bess and could look for a ready-made replacement.

In a league with pass-happy offenses, there will always be a need for productive pass-catchers.

The second factor in any free-agent equation comes down to dollars and cents (and sense). How much is a player -- in this case Edelman -- worth?

Last offseason, the Patriots gave Danny Amendola just north of $10 million in guarantees on a five-year deal.

Edelman is about the same age Amendola was when he signed that contract, and given Edelman's production in 2013, he has a case to seek similar compensation.

The cost of his services, how his skills translate to another offensive system, and the question of whether he can continue to stay healthy are all factors that other teams will weigh in deciding whether to pursue Edelman.

The Patriots will similarly weigh Edelman's contractual desires and how they view him relative to their roster construction. Past performance does not guarantee future output, and while the Patriots couldn't have asked for more from Edelman in '13, any potential offer extended to him would reflect what they believe he can bring in the future.

Last offseason, the Patriots endured a difficult back-and-forth negotiation with a top-producing wide receiver. Ultimately, Wes Welker ended up in Denver.

Now another Pats wideout is set to hit free agency, and only time will tell if Edelman will also wear a new jersey in 2014.