The big names that have led the Patriots to their third 7-0 start in team history get most of the media attention. Tom Brady, Julian Edelman, Dont'a Hightower, Jamie Collins, Stephon Gilmore, Kyle Van Noy and Devin McCourty are the standouts that garner the most praise and attention. But the Patriots have always been a team that values the contributions of all 53 of those on their active roster, and once again this season the team is getting key contributions from those who might be outside the media spotlight but are the kinds of valuable players with whom championships are won.
Last night against the Jets it was John Simon forcing an early fumble that helped set the tone. Acquired early during the 2018 season, Simon has seen his role continually expand and has become a critical contributor.
"I would say one guy that defines tough, smart, dependable, is John Simon," said outside linebackers coach Demarcus Covington. "He’s a guy where, you wish you had more guys like him because he’s so freaking smart, so tough, dependable. You hear other guys’ names throughout the week. You always hear Jamie or Hightower or [Kyle] Van Noy, but John Simon – he’s a guy who might not get the recognition, but in this building, he’s definitely one of our guys we lean on each week."
Simon's played just under 50 percent of the defensive snaps but has chipped in three sacks, a forced fumble and an interception. He's also got a career-high four passes defensed, has already surpassed his production in 11 games with the Patriots last season. Throw in that he's played 41.6 percent of the special teams snaps and it's clear how Simon is turning into one of those classic Patriot stories who do it all after being a free agent castoff.
Another kind of classic Patriot story is Brandon Bolden, an undrafted rookie who has now played 105 games and is contributing in multiple ways and doing the dirty work to help the team win games. Last night featured one of the prettiest catches of Bolden's career, a difficult back shoulder catch for 28 yards that set the offense up for their third scoring drive of the night.
Coach Belichick described what makes Bolden such an asset to the team.
"Brandon is smart and he can handle a big load offensively and in the kicking game," said Belichick. "He's not only a good special teams player, but he plays critical roles and decision-making roles in that phase of the game. And offensively, he's been involved in not just running plays, but I'd say some scheme-type running plays that are a little higher degree of difficulty, along with pass protection and route running, and again, some of the more sophisticated routes that are maybe a little more receiver-type routes than running back routes. It's not like he just goes and stands over the ball on all of his pass routes. He's able to line up in different spots, run different routes and bring that type of, not just versatility, but a high level of execution to it as well.
"So, he gives us tremendous value and he gives us great leadership off the field with his teammates, with younger players and veteran players as well. I mean, anybody can look at Brandon and be inspired and learn from him – coaches, players, all of us."
Bolden had a blocked punt last week against the Giants and has added kick returner to his resume this season, while also tying his career-high in points with 18 on three touchdowns. After a one-year hiatus in Miami, Bolden's now contributing more than ever.
"Brandon’s a great, great teammate," said offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels on Tuesday. "He’s one of the great unselfish players we have here, and we’ve had a lot of them. But, this guy plays in all of the phases of the kicking game. He’s ready to go. If I told Brandon he was going to play 70 snaps on offense, he wouldn’t flinch or blink. If I told Brandon he was going to play five snaps on offense, he wouldn’t flinch or blink. So, he’s got a great attitude and a great approach. He’s got a really wonderful skillset to be able to do a lot of different things and we’re really glad we have him."
Simon and Bolden are two classic tales of the Bill Belichick era -- the undrafted free agent who carves out an impressive and lengthy career, and a free agent journeyman, let go by other teams only to find a home and an important role on the NFL's best team. Between offense, defense and special teams, they are making game-changing plays and are just two of the latest unsung heroes of the Patriots dynasty.