FOXBORO -- On Sunday, special teams coach Scott O'Brien was asked what qualities make up a good punt returner. The first he named was toughness.
"It's like having to run through a door and you don't know what's at the other end," he said.
The metaphor could be applied to Julian Edelman's NFL career.
A college quarterback, he became a receiver in the pros. Last year, his third, he had just four catches, playing most snaps as a defensive back instead. He should at least have 'D' off his plate to start 2012, as a source says the plan for Edelman is "all offense."
Still, his most consistent progression might be in the return game.
"He's like a lot of examples through the history of the National Football League," said O'Brien. "Had no experience doing it, had some natural instincts, pretty good ball skills.
"But there is a learning process with all returners, no matter what experience they've had in the past because of the schemes and the coverage principles that we have to deal with here. It becomes a learning process of how they do things besides just the physical skills they do have."
Not just any talented player can step in on returns. Aaron Hernandez botched a fair catch on Friday. Pat Chung misjudged one -- fielding a punt near his own 2-yard line -- during minicamp.
Edelman said special teams work takes patience. Even in the offseason, even on his own time.
"I do find punters though, wherever I'm at. When I was in Los Angeles I found this kid and he would punt the ball to me Tuesdays and Thursdays. There's little drills that you can do where you're throwing towels, tennis balls, whiffle balls, just to get your vision where it needs to be. I'd have a buddy out there who'll try to run and put pressure on me."
O'Brien sees Edelman's biggest progression in field awareness. It's a big step forward for the 26-year old, just not the last step.
"This will be my fourth year -- not that Ive played in a lot of games and not that Im where I want to be, and I have a long way to go -- but anytime you get a lot of reps at something, youre naturally going to feel a little more comfortable with it," he said. "Were going in the direction we want to."
Overall team improvement is needed.
New England's 21.4-yard kick return average in 2011 ranked 29th in the league. Edelman returned 12 of the 46 team attempts. As the Patriots have rotated various guys in for reps since minicamp -- Donte' Stallworth, Deion Branch, Wes Welker, Danny Woodhead, Devin McCourty, Chung -- competition could heat up in search for the right fit.
Edelman? He'll keep hanging tough.
"I'm confident, but never comfortable."