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Is Julian Edelman the best postseason wide receiver since Jerry Rice? An investigation

When Tom Brady needs a spark, Edelman’s been there to ignite him.

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On paper, the Rams have a distinct advantage at wide receiver in Super Bowl 53. Los Angeles has two different wideouts who gained more than 1,200 yards through the air in 2018. New England, by comparison, doesn’t have a single receiver who had more than 850 on the season.

But the Patriots do have a not-so-secret weapon who can even the scales against the Rams’ explosive passing attack: the second-most prolific wide receiver in NFL playoff history.

Julian Edelman’s big performance in the AFC Championship Game pushed him one step closer to the top of NFL postseason ranks in both receptions and receiving yards — and more importantly, gave Tom Brady the first downs he needed to overcome the Chiefs and make it to his record-ninth Super Bowl.

A seven-catch, 96-yard performance in Kansas City means Edelman stands alone in second place on the list of all-time playoff targets with 105 catches, and in third place with 1,271 yards in 17 postseason games. Here’s how he stacks up with some other notable players from the past two decades:

NFL playoff receivers in recent history

Player Team Rec Yds Y/R TD
Player Team Rec Yds Y/R TD
Jerry Rice 49ers/Raiders 151 2245 14.9 22
Julian Edelman Patriots 105 1271 12.1 5
Reggie Wayne Colts 93 1254 13.48 9
Hines Ward Steelers 88 1181 13.4 10
Wes Welker Patriots/Broncos 88 866 9.84 5
Michael Irvin Cowboys 87 1315 15.1 8
Rob Gronkowski Patriots 75 1076 14.35 12
Anquan Boldin 4 teams 70 1057 15.1 8
Marvin Harrison Colts 65 883 13.6 2
Deion Branch Patriots/Seahawks 64 948 14.81 4
Cris Carter Vikings/Eagles 63 870 13.8 8
Julio Jones Falcons 61 834 13.67 6

With that kinda-sorta milestone hit, it’s fair to ask; where does Edelman sit in the pantheon of playoff greats?

The argument: Julian Edelman is the greatest postseason WR since Jerry Rice

Statistically, it’s true. No one since the 49ers legend has made a greater overall impact in the postseason than Edelman, who has put together the rough equivalent of a 99-catch, 1,196-yard, five-touchdown season against the best teams the NFL has to offer in 17 playoff games. If you exclude the first three seasons of his pro career — years when he still transitioning from MAC quarterback to NFL wideout — those projections explode to 128 catches, 1,596 yards, and four touchdowns in a 16-game season.

That’s right; Edelman’s playoff stats from 2013 to 2018 (12 games) would put him on pace to have one of the league’s top-25 most productive regular seasons of all time.

Few players have been a bigger security blanket late in one possession games than the rangy Patriot. He produced two different third-and-10 first downs in overtime of last Sunday’s AFC Championship Game. His 38 receiving yards in the fourth quarter and OT helped New England erase a 28-3 deficit in the greatest Super Bowl ever played. Two years before that, he had nine catches for 109 yards and what proved to be the game-winning touchdown to freeze out the Seahawks in another instant classic.

When the Patriots need a big catch, Edelman has stepped up to deliver it. And Rice appreciates how much that means for his team. Here’s what the Hall of Famer told The Athletic’s Jeff Howe in the run-up to Super Bowl 53.

”People talk about, ‘Well, he’s not as fast and stuff.’ That was the same knock on me. They were saying I didn’t have that blazing speed. What Edelman has is a big heart. He wants to compete. He wants to be one of the best. He is going to make those difficult catches knowing that he’s going to get hit. You can’t ask for more in a receiver. Just like everybody feeds off Tom Brady, they also feed off Edelman.”

He’s got Rice on his side ... and he’s also thrown as many or more postseason touchdown passes as Kirk Cousins, Andy Dalton, and Teddy Bridgewater.

Counterpoint: Edelman is just the beneficiary of his place on a team that’s averaged 2.3 playoff games per year since he was drafted

Edelman has been a perfectly fine and reliable target, but his spot atop the record books is more a function of his constant postseason presence as a long-tenured New England Patriot. Playing with Brady has given him an unfair advantage over anyone else on the list, particularly receivers like Larry Fitzgerald or Anquan Boldin or Demaryius Thomas. Those receivers are effectively stripped from the conversation because they’ve spent significant swaths of their careers catching passes from the Matt Leinarts and Trevor Siemians of the world.

Edelman has never been a Super Bowl MVP, like Lynn Swann, Jerry Rice, or even Deion Branch. He’s had four playoff games where he’s recorded one catch or fewer. Boil his numbers down into digestible per-game chunks and he doesn’t look so superlative.

NFL Playoff per-game receiving leaders, 2000-present

Player G Rec/Gm Yds/Gm TD/Gm Y/R Ctch% Y/Tgt
Player G Rec/Gm Yds/Gm TD/Gm Y/R Ctch% Y/Tgt
Larry Fitzgerald 9 6.33 104.67 1.11 16.53 67.10% 11.08
Julio Jones 8 7.63 104.25 0.75 13.67 75.30% 10.3
Steve Smith 11 5.36 91.00 0.82 16.97 68.60% 11.64
Antonio Brown 10 5.10 83.70 0.40 16.41 63.00% 10.33
Marques Colston 10 5.80 78.80 0.40 13.59 61.10% 8.29
Demaryius Thomas 10 5.30 75.90 0.60 14.32 55.80% 7.99
Julian Edelman 17 6.18 74.76 0.29 12.1 64.40% 7.8
Rob Gronkowski 15 5.00 71.73 0.80 14.35 61.00% 8.75
Dallas Clark 12 5.33 70.58 0.33 13.23 68.10% 9.01
Anquan Boldin 15 4.67 70.47 0.53 15.1 57.90% 8.74

Among the NFL’s top 30 postseason targets since 1999, Edelman ranks fourth in catches per game, seventh in yards per game, and 21st in touchdowns per game. His 12.1 yards per catch doesn’t crack the top 20 either.

Those per-game numbers suggest two other worthy contenders to the postseason GOAT mantle. Larry Fitzgerald has been just as good in the postseason as he’s been in the regular season. Julio Jones, who averaged 1.3 more receptions in the playoffs and upped his catch rate from 63.7 percent to 75.3 percent despite being opposing defenses’ top target, has been even better.

Counter-counterpoint: ...

How could you ever ...

forget ...

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The defense rests.

The verdict: Edelman is the postseason post-Rice WR GOAT — at least until Julio Jones gets more reps

Edelman’s edge in playoff experience — after Super Bowl 53, he’ll have 10 more postseason games on his resume than Jones and nine more than Fitzgerald — gives him the nod here, even after he missed the entire 2017 postseason (and his team’s title game defeat to the Eagles). The Patriot wide receiver has gotten better over time, and his team is undefeated in Super Bowls where he has at least one catch. Since 2014, the Pats are 9-1 in postseason games where he takes the field — a span in which he’s averaged eight catches and 102.3 yards per contest. On February 3, he’ll have the chance to add to those statistics.

Those are stunning numbers against elite competition. And while Jones offers more as a wide receiver and has been prolific in his eight playoff games, he’s still got some catching up to do.