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Edelman tough player to slot

Receiver/returner can hang at cornerback, too

By Peter Abraham
Globe Staff / February 4, 2012
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INDIANAPOLIS - Arizona Cardinals star wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald said earlier this week that it would be “disrespectful’’ to be asked to play defense.

For Fitzgerald, it probably would be. He was the third overall pick of the 2004 draft and has scored 73 touchdowns in his career.

But Julian Edelman doesn’t have the luxury of judging the decisions made by Patriots coach Bill Belichick. His job is to go in the direction he’s pointed.

Edelman has caught four passes, carried the ball four times, and returned 40 punts or kickoffs this season. Counting the postseason, he also has played parts of 10 games on defense as a slot cornerback.

Disrespectful? For Edelman, the disrespect would come in not getting a chance to play more.

“I enjoy it. I love playing football and I get to do that for a living right now,’’ he said. “Any time you’re on the field and you get a chance to contribute to the team, that’s a great experience.’’

Edelman had not played defense since his Pop Warner days. A quarterback in high school and at Kent State, it never occurred to him to play on the other side of the ball.

Then came a tap on the shoulder midway through this season. Edelman said the transition is as much mental as it his physical.

“You don’t want to look silly out there. The NFL is higher learning. You have class, you have to study, and your test comes on Sunday,’’ he said. “It’s a lot of work.’’

At 5 feet 10 inches, 198 pounds, Edelman is built like a cornerback. He also has the physicality, having rushed for 1,551 yards as a senior at Kent State. He’s not afraid to hit or be hit.

“I didn’t just see Edelman as a wide receiver. I see him as a scrappy, feisty football player and my first impression was basically: interesting, this should be interesting,’’ cornerback Kyle Arrington said. “We’ve had our moments in practice, so I already knew he was going to bring that to the defensive side of the ball.’’

Belichick never saw Edelman as a quarterback. The Patriots liked him as a returner and receiver. When injuries cut into the depth of the secondary, Edelman was a natural choice to at least try.

“His skill set as a slot receiver carried over to the same skill set that we look for in our slot corners, so we started to use him some there in one-on-one after practice,’’ Belichick said. “He has a knack for it, he picked it up quickly, he’s a smart, hard-working guy. If you ask him to do something, he’ll work really hard to get it right and try to do it.’’

Patriots receiver Matthew Slater, who has played some safety this season, believes Edelman was a good choice to play defense.

“Julian, he’s a competitor. No matter what he’s doing on the football field he’s going to compete for you, he’s going to give you everything he’s got out there. He’s not afraid to play aggressive and try to make plays, play physical,’’ Slater said.

The Ravens targeted Edelman in the AFC Championship game and the Giants seem eager to do the same tomorrow in the Super Bowl. Wide receiver Mario Manningham has mocked Edelman all week, saying he hopes the Patriots play him on defense because “he’s not a real defensive back.

“Did he get drafted as a defensive back? We have a little bond going on knowing that we can beat somebody. We’re confident. I hope he’s out there,’’ Manningham said.

Giants receiver Hakeem Nicks was more complimentary about Edelman.

“It’s not like that. I respect him as a player. I understand that he’s a good player. He plays wide receiver and defensive back. I don’t take anything from him. But he plays offense,’’ Nicks said.

“He’s an athlete. Obviously, he’s playing both ways for a reason. Whatever they’ve been doing this far in the season it’s been working because they are where they are today. We’ll see how they play it.’’

If Edelman has heard the talk - and there’s no chance he hasn’t - he is choosing to ignore it.

“All I can do is prepare for the game,’’ he said. “It doesn’t really matter what they say.’’

Peter Abraham can be reached at pabraham@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @PeteAbe.

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