The New England Patriots had more opt-outs due to COVID-19 before the season started than any other team in the NFL.
In total, there were 8. The return of those players is still in doubt, however, on Tuesday night, one made his intentions known. Running back and long-time special teams contributor Brandon Bolden made it pretty clear he’d be back with the Patriots in 2021.
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What Brandon Bolden’s Return Means
The Patriots aren’t likely to need Bolden much as a running back. The 30-year-old is a good short-yardage option who could make the Patriots’ already strong red zone offense more deadly, but his primary position is arguably New England’s best unit.
Of course, the recovery of Rex Burkhead, who tore his ACL last month, is important, but the backfield doesn’t figure to be the spot where Bolden’s presence will be the most used.
He has maintained a spot in the NFL and played a role in 2 Super Bowl wins because of his play on special teams. That too is a strong suit for the Patriots, but Bolden’s experience in that area would still likely be welcomed back in 2021.
Bolden is also a powerful locker room presence who brings a certain attitude on the field. Culture, positivity, and toughness can’t be undersold.
Other Opt-Outs Whose Decisions Will Be Important
While the Patriots may welcome Bolden back, there are some other opt-outs whom New England will be monitoring when it comes time to state their intentions for 2021. No. 1 on that list is inside linebacker Dont’a Hightower. Without a question, Hightower is the opt-out player the Patriots miss the most, and second place isn’t even close.
Teams have gashed the Patriots’ front seven most of the year as the team is missing the second-level thumper who plugs the right gap and is a sure tackler. Terez Hall has proven to be strong in run defense, but he struggles in coverage. Ja’Whaun Bentley has been bad in most areas. When you compound Hightower’s absence with the exit of Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins, and Elandon Roberts, the Patriots’ linebackers have been in shambles all year.
Josh Uche and Chase Winovich have some promise and the jury is still out on Anfernee Jennings, but either way, the team needs to add some serious help at linebacker.
Marcus Cannon is expected to retire. Had he played this season, his presence would have solidified one of the tackle positions for the Patriots. Without him this season, and moving ahead, the Patriots have gone with a youth movement at tackle.
Michael Onwenu has been a stud all year, but his more natural spot is guard. He’ll be a perennial Pro-Bowler if he moves there, perhaps to replace the likely departing Joe Thuney. Justin Herron does look like a winner at tackle, either on the left or right side. That would still leave the Patriots looking for a strong performer opposite him.
They had hoped Yodney Cajuste would develop into a starter, but he hasn’t been able to stay healthy. For now, the Patriots will wait for Cannon’s official announcement on his decision for the future.
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