The Patriots are used to playing without receiver Julian Edelman. They did it all last season (thanks to an ACL tear) and for seven games in 2015, and finished in the top three to score both years. No team manages unexpected absences better.
The most important question, following the news on Thursday that Edelman faces a four-game suspension for violating the substance policy to improve the NFL's performance, is what kind of player it will be when does so ] rejoin the team.
Edelman emerged as one of the NFL's best slots receivers despite his size (5-foot-10, 200 pounds) because of his incredible speed and ability to make plays after the catch. An easy way to annoy your local Patriots fan, one of the favorite hobbies in the United States, is to tell them that Edelman in his prime was a more dynamic and valuable player than Wes Welker. Now that Edelman is 32 years old and is emerging from a tear of the anterior cruciate ligament while having a history of foot problems, it is unrealistic to expect him to reach those heights again. The Patriots just have to wait for their decline not to be as fast as Welker's, who left the Patriots when he was about to meet … 32 years.
The expectation among many Patriots fans was that Edelman had intervened as the team's number one receiver this season, absorbing much of the production that went to Brandin Cooks (who was traded to the Rams) and Danny Amendola (who signed in Miami) last season. I was not so sure that that would happen even before this suspension, due to Edelman's age, his injury history and the reality that the only constant in New England is change.
The team is down as a wide receiver, but nobody in New England should panic, because it's a deep group. Third-year pro Malcolm Mitchell, who marked the return of the team's Super Bowl over the Falcons, returns after spending 2017 on injured reserve for a knee injury. Chris Hogan and free agent Jordan Matthews will have roles. And there will be incredible competition for the final spots between Phillip Dorsett, Kenny Britt, Cordarrelle Patterson and rookie wide receiver Braxton Berrios, who Miami Hurricane fans swear will be the next Edelman. Closed end Rob Gronkowski is still the team's true No. 1 receiver, and the team has a lot of runners who catch the ball, including James White, Rex Burkhead and first-round pick Sony Michel.
Tom Brady has no shortage of options to throw, and Edelman has to earn his place again on offense. This suspension will undoubtedly make it more difficult, and there is no guarantee that it will play a leading role when returns to the field.
The good news for Edelman and the Patriots, if there is one here, has time to plan his absence, and he will be back on the field when the Patriots offense is kept in the early stages of his development. The same New England offense that came from behind against Jacksonville in the playoffs and then won 613 yards in the Super Bowl was a work in progress until December of last season, with the members of an increasingly changing receiving team still they settle in their respective roles.
No team does a better job adapting on the fly and covering up weaknesses than the Patriots, which is the way they won a Super Bowl without Rob Gronkowski and went 3-1 without Tom Brady to start the 2016 season. Almost every receiver they have has the flexibility to play inside, where Brady likes to shoot better, especially Matthews and Hogan. The offense thought she was more focused on her group of deep runners this season; Edelman's suspension could only accelerate that process.
On the other hand, the ability of the Patriots to solve problems is often so evident because they leave the doors slowly. After a low season full of changes in the squad on both sides of the ball, Bill Belichick already imagined having his hands busy in September. That challenge will only be more pronounced with Edelman out of the mix, especially when there is no guarantee that the Edelman they used to know will ever come back.
Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @greggrosenthal .