The New England Patriots, who will head into their summer vacation soon, currently have 90 players on their active roster. However, only 53 of them will be able to survive the cutdowns on August 31 and ultimately make the team. Over the course of the summer, we will take a look at the players fighting for those spots to find out who has the best chances of helping the Patriots defend their Super Bowl title.
Today, the series continues with one of New England’s most experienced players.
Name: Matthew Slater
Position: Wide receiver/Special teamer
Jersey number: 18
Opening day age: 33
Size: 6’0, 205 lbs.
2018 review: Matthew Slater’s 2018 began with him on the open market after the expiration of his old contract. His free agency experience lasted a week and even included a visit to the Pittsburgh Steelers, but the career-Patriot ultimately returned to Foxboro on a two-year, $5.2 million deal. With his new contract in hand, the team captain produced another solid season as one of New England’s core special teams players.
He appeared in all sixteen of the club’s regular season contests — the first time since 2015 that he was able to accomplish that — and was on the field for 66.9% of its snaps in the kicking game (303 of 453); only Nate Ebner saw more special teams action in 2018. Slater was his usual productive self, and despite not being voted to his eight Pro Bowl in a row showed why he is still one of the better kicking game players in the NFL.
All in all, Slater registered 11 special teams tackles during the regular season with a team-high 7 of them being solo takedowns. And despite regularly being doubled at the line of scrimmage on punt coverage plays and also drawing attention on kickoffs, he typically was among the first Patriots to impact any given play. In this role, he was one of the few bright spots players during New England’s early-season kick coverage funk.
The units ultimately overcame their issues, and Slater’s presence and the stability he provided could very well have been factors contributing to this development. And during the final three games of the season, his impact was on full display yet again: he appeared in all three of New England’s postseason contests and played 65 of the team’s 92 special teams snaps (70.7%). He also was tied for the team-lead with three tackles.
On top of it all, Slater again served as a leader on the sidelines and in the locker room — and as the man responsible for calling the coin toss, something he successfully did ahead of the Patriots’ game-winning drive in the AFC Championship Game’s overtime period. And while he was not on the field for the series given that his offensive contributions were limited to a mere 22 snaps all year long, the veteran still played an important role in getting New England to this point in the first place.
Seeing him on the field for the final kneel-down of the Patriots’ victory in Super Bowl 53 two weeks after the conference title game was therefore a rewarding end to another strong season.
2019 preview: Ahead of the start of the NFL’s 2019 league year in early March, the Patriots exercised a $400,000 option clause in Slater’s contract that triggered the second year of the deal and essentially guarantees that the veteran will be on New England’s roster in 2019. Seeing the club do that is no surprise whatsoever considering Slater’s value as a member of all four special teams units and one of the team’s most experienced players.
In this dual role, the 33-year-old will again play an important but probably underappreciated role for the Patriots this season: he will once more see his fair amount of snaps in the kicking game and still be a center of attention for opponents despite his comparatively advanced age. This, in turn, will help free things up for some his colleagues — most prominently fellow core special teamers Nate Ebner, Brandon King and Jonathan Jones.
Slater, who is on the Patriots’ books with a $2.9 million salary cap hit, will also again play an enormous role as a team leader and mentor for younger players. As such, he will again be named team captain — which would make it nine straight years, trailing only quarterback Tom Brady. His 2019 campaign is therefore expected to look like the rest of Slater’s pro football career: his contributions will again be massively important but flying under the radar a bit.
The main questions heading into this season will probably be more about Slater’s future than his play or impact, though: turning 34 the day after New England’s season opener, the three-time world champion is entering the final year of his contract. Could 2019 therefore be Slater’s final season? It certainly seems possible, which is why earning another championship — his fourth — would be the perfect way to cap an improbable career.