New England Patriots

Finalist Benjamin Watson of the New Orleans Saints speaks during the 2015 Walter Payton Man of the Year Finalist press conference prior to Super Bowl 50 at the Moscone Center West on February 5, 2016 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Mike Lawrie/Getty Images)

Finalist Benjamin Watson of the New Orleans Saints speaks during the 2015 Walter Payton Man of the Year Finalist press conference prior to Super Bowl 50 at the Moscone Center West on February 5, 2016 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Mike Lawrie/Getty Images)

By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com

The Patriots brought back some familiar faces this offseason, and at least two of them are set to be significant leadership presences in the locker room. One is the returning Brandon Bolden, who was long a great locker room guy and spent just one year away from New England. The other is Ben Watson, who took a decidedly different trajectory back to Foxborough.

After growing into a leader in his first stint with the Patriots from 2004-2009, Watson spent the next nine seasons moving around between Cleveland, Baltimore, and New Orleans. He only became more of a leader, not just with his teams but to players across the league. That wisdom has almost forced the 38-year-old – who physically doesn’t look one bit that age, by the way – to imbue the Patriots locker room with the qualities he’s built and refined over his first 14 seasons.

“I think I have a leadership role, period, in our locker room because I’m 38 years old,” Watson told reporters after the Patriots’ OTA session on Thursday. “That’s just what comes when you’re an older player.”

He quickly made it clear, though, that his locker room leadership stays in the locker room. Once he straps on the jersey and helmet, it’s time to earn his way onto the roster and the field like anyone else.

“What happens in the locker room and what happens on the field are two totally different things,” Watson said. “On the field, this is the ultimate meritocracy. It’s about learning what to do, being consistent making plays, all the things I learned as a rookie.

“When you come in it doesn’t matter what you’ve done somewhere else, it doesn’t matter what you did last year, it doesn’t matter what you’ve done in your career or where you’ve been. It’s all about how you perform every day in practice and listening and meetings and those sorts of things.”

Watson arrives at a time when the tight end position will see more turnover than any on the Patriots roster. Only Ryan Izzo and Stephen Anderson remain from the 2018 team, and neither played in a single game. Watson has perhaps the best chance of any new face to make the team at tight end, if only because of his experience and ability to contribute as both a pass-catcher and blocker.

Nobody on the roster is going to be the next Rob Gronkowski, to be certain. Watson won’t be the game-changing kind of tight end who can come up with big catches in big moments like Gronk did all the way to the end of his career. But can he make 47 catches for 682 yards and 3 touchdowns in the regular season, which Gronk had in his final year? That’s not an unreasonable projection for a tight end who caught 35 of 46 targets just last year at age 37.

Watson is one year older but he’s also one year wiser. In the case of the Patriots, he’s 10 years wiser. Watson has become one of the NFL’s most accomplished players off the field, consistently serving in his communities and starting the One More Foundation with his wife Kirsten in 2008. He’s a former Walter Payton Man of the Year nominee and has written two books – The New Dad’s Playbook: Gearing Up for the Biggest Game of Your Life, and Under Our Skin: Getting Real about Race. Getting Free from the Fears and Frustrations that Divide Us.

Above all the work he’s done away from the practice fields, Watson is still able to separate it from what he can do on it. His leadership and the Patriots’ uncertainty at tight end is likely to keep him on the roster no matter what. But he still realizes that he’s not actually going to get the football in a game unless he deserves it.

“I do consider myself to be a leader simply from a life standpoint, talking to some of the younger guys,” Watson said. “But as far as production on the field, that’s something that’s earned.”

Matt Dolloff is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff or email him at matthew.dolloff@bbgi.com.