The New England Patriots saw a league-high eight of their players opt out of the 2020 season due to concerns about the Coronavirus. One year later, only two of them are still with the team. Both are playing prominent roles, however.
Linebacker Dont’a Hightower continues to serve as a team captain and the leader of the Patriots’ defensive front seven. Brandon Bolden, meanwhile, is still a core member of New England’s special teams units.
Nine weeks into the season, however, Bolden has proven his value beyond that role: he is now equally important at his listed position of running back — something that was not always the case earlier in his career.
Sunday’s 24-6 win over the Carolina Panthers showed his value once again.
One part of New England’s three-headed rushing attack alongside Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson, Bolden took the field as a rotational option and receiver out of the backfield. In that role, the 31-year-old played 29 snaps — most among the team’s running backs — and finished with 10 touches that he took for 81 yards: Bolden gained 54 yards on 10 rushing attempts and also caught a pair of passes for 27 yards.
Besides his contributions on offense, Bolden also served as a four-unit special teamer again. He played 15 snaps in the kicking game, fourth most behind only Matthew Slater, Cody Davis and Justin Bethel.
After the game, head coach Bill Belichick spoke about Bolden and what he is bringing to the team this season.
“He has a big role — pass protection, route running, some of the carries that he’s taken — he’s done a good job and he’s still continued to keep his role in the kicking game which has been good as well,” Belichick said.
“We’ve had good depth in the backfield. Some years we’ve had to use it, some years we haven’t, but when we’ve had it, generally those guys have stepped up and done a good job for us — going all the way back to [Cordarrelle Patterson] in 2018, we needed him during a point in the season. But Brandon has stepped up every week, and Rhamondre, and obviously Damien, and J.J. [Taylor] last week, so hopefully those guys will continue to come through for us.”
Bolden playing this important a role was not the plan to start the season. Now donning No. 25 in honor of his grandfather, Frank Pitts, the 10th-year man was again expected to primarily be used on special teams — if he even made the team. Bolden obviously did, and when James White was lost for the season in late September he answered the call and helped fill White’s shoes.
Since then, he has registered 22 carries for 108 yards as well as 22 receptions for an additional 189 yards and a touchdown. His combined output is already the third most of his career in a single season, showing how much the Patriots have used him so far this year.
“He is a great dude. Brandon, that is my guy,” said quarterback Mac Jones. “He is just a great team player and he has obviously been in the NFL for a long time. Just like James has. He has seen a lot of football and he just helps the team win in any way he can. He makes plays.”
Against Carolina, Bolden did just that, with Jones mentioning an over-the-shoulder grab late in the second quarter that helped the Patriots score a touchdown just before halftime. Later that game, he even took over as the number one back after both Harris and Stevenson were lost to head injuries in the fourth quarter.
“He stepped up and did a good job of running the ball. He is fast and strong, and he is a great teammate too, which is really important,” Jones said. “He always has my back and has other people’s back on our offense and keeps it positive. That is what makes is really fun to play with him.”
While it remains to be seen how Bolden’s role will evolve moving forward, especially considering Harris’ and Stevenson’s uncertain injury statuses, he has already proven himself an important player on the New England offense and in the kicking game.
Sunday’s win in Carolina was therefore business as usual for Bolden, but still a perfect representation of his role in 2021.