How Julian Edelman stayed sharp during his suspension

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- During the football season, Julian Edelman knows all about the 1 p.m. ET kickoff, as well as 4:25 p.m. and 8:20 p.m. He lives for game day.

But being away from the team during the time in which he served a four-game NFL suspension to open the 2018 season, Edelman grew accustomed to the 11 a.m. ET kickoff.

That’s when the team of people helping him, a group that notably included former teammate Rob Ninkovich, would arrive at various fields around Boston and its suburbs. This was the daily schedule -- whether it was at Harvard University in Cambridge; Ahern Middle School in Foxborough; Union Sports Complex in Weymouth; Milton Academy; Nobles and Greenough School in Dedham; Boston College in Chestnut Hill; and The Rivers School in Weston, which is also the alma mater of Patriots safeties coach Steve Belichick.

It worked well for Edelman, who beforehand would often focus on his conditioning at the Auerbach Center, the Boston Celtics’ sparkling new facility. Yes, there were a few competitive pingpong games with Gordon Hayward as well, with Edelman noting that Hayward used a special paddle while Edelman left his behind (maybe that explains the 9-1 edge for Hayward). The Patriots’ connections to the Celtics are well-documented: Coach Brad Stevens has visited training-camp practices, and more recently, Johann Bilsborough -- who heads the Celtics’ sports science department -- has lent his expertise to Bill Belichick and his staff as a director of performance.

So Edelman began his days in a basketball-based environment before transitioning to football by 11 a.m.

“I had a good routine going,” he explained. “It was pretty cool to see all the support from all these people and these organizations and places, so I definitely took advantage of it.”

The first person Edelman mentioned along those lines is Brian McDonough, a strength-and-conditioning coach who runs a sports performance center not far from Gillette Stadium and has worked with many Patriots players over the years. When Ninkovich served a four-game suspension to open the 2016 season, for example, McDonough trained with him during that time so he could have as smooth of a transition as possible back to football.

“He was awesome, worked me out every day. It was good to have someone to push you,” said Edelman, who then added that he prefers to not look back and instead focus on what's ahead for the Patriots: A Sunday night home game against the 5-0 Kansas City Chiefs.

McDonough has many connections across the region, and he essentially organized Edelman’s schedule. That included tapping former Boston College quarterback Mark Hartsell, who had a brief stint with the Chicago Bears (2000) and now runs a training program for aspiring quarterbacks.

After all, how could Edelman stay sharp without someone throwing him the ball?

He also needed someone to defend him, and that’s where Ninkovich lent his expertise. Much like a scout-team player, the former Patriots linebacker (2009-2016) who is now two years into retirement gave Edelman the best look possible.

That meant if Edelman ran a “sit” route, where he would sit on the sticks and attempt to catch the ball for a first down, Ninkovich would try to jam him at the line of scrimmage, let him get off the jam and then finish the play.

“I’d just go right into him,” Ninkovich explained, “and when he caught the ball, try to swat it out.”

Or if Edelman ran a variation of a stem route -- when he moves in toward the hash marks, flips his head as if he were running across the field, but them cuts back to the sideline -- Ninkovich would challenge him.

“He runs that route all the time. I’d give him pressure, outside hip, try to jam him in, and then when he would give me the fake, I obviously knew what he was running so I wasn’t going for the inside move,” Ninkovich explained. “But I’d be there with my hand up and he’d have to catch it.”

Since his return to the Patriots on Oct. 1, when he arrived at the facility shortly after 7 a.m., Edelman has kept his remarks brief when discussing his time away during the suspension. In a sign that he’s still working his way back to prior form, the Patriots have him going last through some of their wide receiver drills at practice.

Still, the foundation he laid in the preseason has helped his transition.

“He was there for the whole duration of that and made progress, and was doing everything everybody else was to prepare for the season,” offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said. “So I wasn’t really concerned about that [upon his return] and I think he held up OK.”

Edelman said Thursday that his conditioning has been good upon his return. He thanked Ninkovich, among others, for putting him in that position to succeed.

“Ninko’s always got it. It helped me a lot, so that was good,” he said. “I really feel like we took advantage of the time that I had.”