Patriots free agency preview Part I: The Returners

By Sterling Pingree

Last year about this time, I wrote a three part prediction series about the Patriots free agents and their chances of staying in Foxborough or driving down route one for other pastures. (They don’t come any greener than Foxborough, unless green is a metaphor for money?) I broke the group of Patriots free agents into three groups: the players that’ll leave, the players who might stay if things just work out that way and those who aren’t going anywhere. The new league year starts on March 14th at 4pm, that is when contracts run out and players officially become free agents.

Allow me to brag momentarily, last year I predicted 6 players would stay in New England and LeGarrette Blount was the only one who the Patriots didn’t resign. I correctly predicted Brandon Bolden, James Develin, Dont’a Hightower, Matt Lengel (they signed his tender and cut him in August, still counts!) and Malcolm Butler (he was a restricted free agent, STILL COUNTS!) Without further ado, here are the 2018 returners.

Matthew Slater

Why he’ll be back:

Slater is one of the most decorated Patriots of this entire era. The special teams’ ace has been named to 7 straight Pro Bowls, 4 times all-pro and has been a team captain since 2011. He’s won the teams Ron Burton award for service, the 2017 Ed Block Courage award and the NFL’s Athletes in Action Bart Starr award. Slater has been a pillar of the team’s community since being drafted in the 5th round of the 2008 NFL Draft. (Did you know that the Patriots traded the 160th pick plus a 7th rounder to Tampa to jump up 7 spots to take Slater?) Matthew Slater will be 33 in September and did battle injuries this past season, but was instrumental down the stretch. I think as long as he still wants to play he’ll be in New England, likely on another two year deal. I spoke with Slater on Friday, he and his young family (he and his wife just had a baby girl during the 2017 season) live in Massachusetts year round at this point. I have a hard time seeing him sign anywhere else, which for a player of his character and ability is a very good thing for the Patriots.

Nate Ebner

Why he’ll be back:

Ebner has become one of the team’s most important special teams players as is evidence, coincidently by the play the ended his season last year. The Patriots went three and out on their first drive against the Dolphins in November. From their own end, the special teams coach Joe Judge dialed up a fake punt to Ebner and the Olympic rugby player picked up the first down near midfield but unfortunately tore his acl on the play. The knee will be something I’m sure the team will be looking at but the Patriots generally have more designated special teams’ players than any other team in the league. I think both sides will get together on a deal to bring Ebner back, but I could see this deal taking some time as we wait and see how the knee heals and what that time table looks like.

Brandon Bolden

Why he’ll be back:

Bolden made this same list last year and I don’t see why he won’t be back with the Patriots. Bolden has created a niche for himself on special teams and has a knack for producing when he’s called into action as a running back. His late season performance out of the back field when White, Lewis and Burkhead went down was important and who could have predicted his touch down in the divisional round against Tennessee? Bolden will be back on probably another one year deal, maybe two years, it could be dependent on what happens with fellow special teamers Nate Ebner and Matthew Slater.

(Breaking news: Field Yates is reporting early Saturday morning that the Patriots have signed Brandon Bolden to a one-year $880,000 extension through 2018 with $170,000 in guaranteed money.)

I’m already 1-0!

Rex Burkhead

Why he’ll be back:

The common theme amongst the guys that I think the team will bring back is that they all play a role on special teams. Burkhead was very effective when he was healthy this year, but he was hampered with injuries for two sizeable chunks. He’s useful as a pass catcher and a power runner, but don’t forget about his blocked punt in Denver either. Because of the injuries, I think his price tag will stay low enough that the team will be able to bring him back. Burkhead said in an interview that he had other offers last year, but he was intrigued to see how the Patriots would use him. We all saw the results on the field last season, and I think we’ll see it for the next two years as well.

Danny Amendola

Why he’ll be back:

One of the most important pieces that the Patriots have hitting the market this year is “Playoff Danny”. And out of that top 3 (Solder and Lewis being the other two) I feel the best about Amendola coming back. He’s created a career in New England and has proved his desire to stay by taking a pay cut each of the last three years to remain a part of this team. The Patriots are incredibly deep at wide receiver with the reintroduction of Julian Edelman and Malcolm Mitchell to a unit that already features Brandin Cooks, Chris Hogan, Phillip Dorsett, Kenny Britt and possibly Amendola.

Amendola has seemed like he could be the odd man out for the past three years, but his playoff performances (did you know he had 152 yards receiving in the Super Bowl?) coupled with his reliability as a punt returner make him a prime candidate to return to New England. Two year deal, front loaded in the first year.


Sterling Pingree (@SterlingPingree on Twitter) is a co-host on The Drive, weekdays 4pm to 6pm on 92.9fm The Ticket and streaming live at DriveShowMaine.Com. Follow us on Twitter, @DriveShowMaine and “Like Us” on Facebook, Drive Show Maine.