Longtime Patriots wide receiver (and Steelers foil) Julian Edelman retired this week after a productive 11 year career. As with every “name” played that announces his retirement, talk quickly turned to the inevitable. Is Edelman a Hall of Fame receiver?
Yes. I would put Julian Edelman in the Hall of Fame. Postseason matters.
— Adam Rank (@adamrank) April 12, 2021
Despite the insistence of some, the obvious answer would appear to be a hard no. Based on everything we know about receivers in the NFL Hall of Fame, Edelman comes up well short of his contemporaries in all major regular season accolades. He was never named an All-Pro and failed to make a single Pro Bowl. Of the 21 receivers currently enshrined in Canton, all but four were named as First-Team All-Pros at least once and every single player made at least three Pro Bowls.
In Pittsburgh particular, with the city lobbying for Hines Ward’s inclusion in the Hall, the comparison between Edelman and Ward was immediately raised.
On any level, the statistics heavily favor Ward over Edelman.
Hines Ward vs. Julian Edelman (regular season and postseason)
Ward: 1,088 catches for 13,264 yards and 95 TD's. 1 SB MVP
Edelman: 614 catches for 6,802 yards and 35 TD's. 1 SB MVP
— Adam Crowley (@_adamcrowley) February 4, 2019
But is there anything below the surface that would seem to give Edelman an edge over Ward?
On Pro Football Reference’s Hall of Fame Monitor page, Edelman scores a 36.18. For reference, a 100 would give a player an average chance of making the Hall. The low man amongst Hall of Famers is Tommy McDonald, who played in the 50s and 60s. He has a 55.03. Recent inductee Andrew Reed scored an 82.46 and Edelman contemporary Calvin Johnson made the Hall at 83.77. Original Brady short slot receiver Wes Welker has a far better case, scoring a 55.63 to go along with two All-Pro selections and five Pro Bowls.
Edelman has impressive postseason numbers, 118 receptions for 1442 yards, which ranks him second to only Jerry Rice. His trophy case includes a Super Bowl MVP trophy and three Championships. But Ward has a SB MVP of his own, as well as two Championships and lofty postseason numbers (88 receptions, 1181 yards and 10 touchdowns).
If you winnow the stats down to their primes, Edelman has a minor advantage, albeit in a more pass-happy era. Edelman’s five year peak saw him average 101 receptions, 1131 receptions and six touchdowns per 16 games. During Ward’s five best seasons, he averaged 90 receptions, 1094 yards and 8.2 touchdowns.
However, Ward’s regular season numbers dwarf Edelman’s. Ward leads in receptions with 1000 compared to Edelman’s 620, 12083 yards to Edelman’s 6822 and 85 touchdowns to Edelman’s 36. Ward has the edge in seasons played, 14 to 11, which accounts for some of the superior production.
Since he’s been eligible for the Hall in 2017, Ward has not made the list of 20 finalists. According to Pro Football Reference, he’s only a fringe candidate as his 73.40 puts him below most currently enshrined receivers. However it places him ahead of Lynn Swann, John Stallworth and Harold Carmichael, as well as 60’s stars Bobby Mitchell, Bob Hayes and Tommy McDonald. Ward has four Pro Bowl selections, an acceptable number for a Hall of Fame receiver, but zero All-Pros to his name.
Edelman was very productive in a shorter period of time than Ward, but so far the Hall of Fame has shown reticence in rewarding short period greatness over long-term excellence, especially in the modern era. A few cases exist, Terrell Davis being the most notable example with only 78 games played. However Davis was a three time All-Pro who put up historic numbers in his limited time with the Broncos.
The receiver with the fewest games played who has ended up in Canton is Lynn Swann. Swann appeared in only 116 games, but won four Super Bowls with the Steelers and was generally regarded as one of the best of his era. Like Edelman, Swann put up huge numbers in the playoffs. Calvin Johnson, who played the same era as Edelman, appeared in 135 games, two fewer than Edelman, but racked up 731 receptions, 11619 yards and 83 touchdowns. He was also named First-Team All-Pro three times and made six Pro Bowls.
Ward ranks 31st all time in Approximate Value as determined by Pro Football Reference, tied with Hall of Famer Fred Biletnikoff and future hopeful Anquan Boldin. Other potential Hall of Famers with roughly the same value include Julio Jones at 119, Tory Holt at 123, Andre Johnson at 125 and Rod Smith at 126. For reference, Edelman ranks 121st, just behind Dez Bryant and Emmanuel Sanders.
If there is hope for Edelman, it rests solely on his playoff numbers and the number of Championships. But even that would take a pretty large leap in logic. For Ward, his regular season numbers put him just a shade below the obvious candidates. However, with his two Super Bowls, Super Bowl MVP and gaudy playoff statistics, as well as, a reputation for being an elite blocker, it seems like he has a pretty good case to eventually be given the gold jacket.