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Sunday Patriots Notes: Brandon Bolden leaves his mark both on and off the field in 2021

Related: Patriots running back Brandon Bolden reveals that he was diagnosed with cancer in 2018

New York Jets v New England Patriots Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

The regular season is almost over, with the New England Patriots’ final game set to be kicked off at 4:25 p.m. ET on Sunday. Even with the top seed in the AFC out of reach, the game against the Miami Dolphins could have some major implications on the team: everything from the second playoff seed in the AFC and the final wild card spot at No. 7 is still on the table.

Most importantly, though, the game against Miami presents an opportunity for the Patriots to show that last week’s beatdown of the Jacksonville Jaguars was no fluke — and that they can carry some momentum into the playoffs. Before turning our attention to that game, however, it is time for our weekly Sunday Patriots Notes.

1. Brandon Bolden leaves his impact both on and off the field. When James White was ruled out for the year after a gruesome hip injury in Week 3, the Patriots were left with a massive hole at a relatively young position group. With White set to miss the remainder of the season, fellow veteran Brandon Bolden stepped up.

Bolden has played an important role as the third-down and receiving back, and has also filled the “big brother” role in the Patriots’ running back room. On Friday, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick raved about his contributions.

“I love Brandon. He’s been a really good player for us in a number of different roles,” said Belichick. “He’s been super dependable and consistent. ... He’s one of the most respected players on the team for, not only what he’s don’t on the field, but how he carries himself off the field, his upbeat personality, and energy that he brings to the team.”

All season long, we have seen running backs Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson speak about Bolden’s energy and leadership as they lean on the veteran running back on and off the field. Bolden has set career-highs in catches (39), receiving yards (385) and scrimmage yards (565) as the Patriots’ primary third-down back.

The biggest story, however, was not his productivity in the New England offense but rather what he revealed last month: Bolden spoke about a cancer diagnosis he received in 2018 for the first time.

“I didn’t know about his situation until actually a few weeks ago when he sat down with me and had a little conversation,” said rookie running back Rhamondre Stevenson. “But that’s just a testament of who he is. He comes in here ready to work every day. I’ve never seen Brandon have a bad day. I know why now, because of the things he’s been though and things like that. So, I understand his joy for life as a whole.

“That’s my big bro and it’s just all love in that room.”

2. D’Angelo Ross is gaining respect around the locker room. A two-year member of the Patriots’ practice squad, D’Angelo Ross has now been elevated to the game-day roster three weeks in a row. He was a topic of discussion during the Patriots’ media availability this week, and guys like Jakobi Meyers and Adrian Phillips all spoke about Ross’ preparation and determination.

Phillips said that Ross has “done everything right” since his arrival and always knows where to be and what do. Meyers, who was a part of the same undrafted free agent class as Ross in 2019, said that seeing him out on the field “brought a lot of joy to my heart.” Meyers later added that he “was really proud of him as a brother, teammate and a family member.”

With fellow defensive back Kyle Dugger out on Sunday, and with Phillips limited in practice due to a knee injury, Ross now has another opportunity to be a versatile piece in the Patriots’ secondary — and to prove that he is worthy of receiving meaningful snaps in the playoffs if his name is called upon.

3. Matthew Judon thrilled to see teammates succeeding. After recording 10.5 sacks in his first nine games as a member of the Patriots, linebacker Matthew Judon has cooled off a bit recording just one in his last four games. Opponents have certainly found ways to slow down Judon and a bout with Covid-19 furthermore limited his snaps in Week 17.

However, when asked this week, Judon was all smiles and directed all of the credit to his teammates.

“That’s why I’m happy I got teammates,” he said, “Guys like Deatrich Wise, Christian Barmore, [Lawrence Guy], Chase [Winovich], [Josh] Uche, [Dont’a] High[tower] got a sack; I want to be the guy that everyone looks upon ... I love what they do, and I celebrate and enjoy their success as much as they celebrate mine.”

Judon has been a pleasure to watch both on and off the field in 2021. His leadership, energy and honesty has made him one of the best offseason signings across the league this year.

4. Making a case for Mac. Two weeks ago, Mac Jones had the 2021 Offensive Rookie of the Year award all but wrapped up. However, after 11 catches, 266 yards and three touchdowns versus the then-number one seed in the AFC, the Kansas City Chiefs, Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase (-250) has leap-frogged Jones (+190) as the betting favorite with one week to go in the season.

NFL fans also think that Chase will take away the trophy. According to SB Nation’s latest Reacts poll, 70 percent of fans would give it to the Bengals wideout rather than the Patriots’ starting quarterback (26 percent).

Obviously, the Patriots have bigger fish to fry this time of year but the debate between Jones and Chase is an interesting one nonetheless.

In a (somewhat) similar situation a year ago, Justin Herbert edged out Justin Jefferson — who set the rookie catch and yards record — for the award. Chase, who ranks in the top five in yards and touchdowns as a rookie, is certainly deserving of the award, but Jones has been more consistent throughout the year.

The Patriots’ QB1 is statistically a top 12-15 quarterback this season and has been one of the driving forces to the team turning things around after a sub-par 2020 season. His continued improvement on a weekly basis has led the Patriots to the playoffs while also becoming just the fourth rookie quarterback to win 10-plus wins and throw for 20-plus touchdowns.

5. Kyle Dugger and Adrian Phillips emerge as future leaders in the Pats’ secondary. After the Patriots inked Adrian Phillips to a three-year extension to kick off the new year, the Patriots have both Dugger and Phillips locked up through at least the 2023 season — and on team-friendly terms: Dugger is on his rookie deal, while Phillips’ cap hit will never exceed $4.2 million (in both 2023 and 2024).

More importantly, the physicality and versatility the two have allows the Patriots to play the style of defense that they want to. With Devin McCourty on the back-nine of his career, the Patriots are in good hands at the safety position with both Dugger and Phillips leading the way.

6. Bill Belichick speaks out on mental health. Appearing on WEEI’s The Greg Hill Show earlier this week and in the light of ex-Patriot Antonio Brown’s sudden departure from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Belichick was asked about how the Patriots approach their players’ mental health. New England’s head coach pointed out the importance of this issue, and how he and his team try to provide the best structure possible.

“That’s important for all of us. We have a number of people who are involved in one way or another in that area,” he said. “Each one of us is different, each one of us is unique. We try to have a team structure, and we have to work individually with guys as stuff comes up. ...

“Very important, and it’s something everyone’s aware of. We talk about it on a pretty regular basis. Football players are tough, they like to block out distractions and things that could affect them on the football field. But, at the same time, you have to live your life and deal with other things. And, so, it’s trying to find that balance.”

Sunday Mailbag

If you know my work, I love the draft and everything goes into it. But, in this scenario, it is a little too early to tell who the Patriots will target in the first round. First, they will have a whole offseason in front of them prior to the draft and with key pending free agents on the current roster, it could sway them a particular way in the first round.

As for Williams, he’s a special prospect who can make plays at all three levels of the field. The Ohio State transfer quickly turned into Alabama’s number one wideout in a short period of time. Williams could very well be the first wide receiver off the board so for that to happen, the Patriots would likely have to move up 12-15 spots just to get a shot at him.

Again, it’s super early in the process but I’d be shocked if Bill Belichick traded up that much for a wide receiver even with the Alabama connection.

The one thing that has stood out the most with Mac Jones during his impressive rookie season is his maturity beyond all levels. This is a kid who had to sit on the bench and wait four years for an opportunity at Alabama and then played in some huge games down the stretch en route to his National Championship run.

Just from being around Jones, he doesn’t seem like the guy that needs a whole lot of guidance on how to maneuver his way around big games and opportunities. He’s a pretty level-headed kid who seems to thrive under pressure. But, having guys like Dont’a Hightower, Devin McCourty, Matthew Slater, and even backup quarterback Brian Hoyer, who have been apart of some really good teams over the years, is big.

It’s always good to lean on guys like that in the situations he may face come January.

Even with reports stating that there were no plans to make Kristian Wilkerson a full-time member of the Patriots’ 53-man roster, there is a chance he sees some action. The roster gymnastics could simply be because teams are allowed unlimited practice squad elevations for the playoffs.

With N’Keal Harry having one of the worst games of his career versus the Buffalo Bills, when he had a major opportunity with Nelson Agholor out, and then Wilkerson stepping in and playing well against Jacksonville, it is not crazy to think Wilkerson may have a role down the stretch.

However, Agholor being expected back, bumps Wilkerson down the depth chart again as evidenced by the fact that he has not been elevated against the Dolphins. With all hands on deck, I can’t see him playing as much as he did last week in the playoffs. Wilkerson may be able to find a role for himself in certain situations down the stretch, though.

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