When the New England Patriots began their offseason in mid-January, Matthew Slater was the third longest tenured member of the team behind quarterback Tom Brady and place kicker Stephen Gostkowski. Fast forward two months, and the veteran special teamer is now the club’s elder statesman: Brady left the Patriots in free agency to join the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, with Gostkowski getting released just a short time afterwards.
With the two veterans gone, and others such as linebackers Kyle Van Noy and Elandon Roberts as well as safety Duron Harmon also joining them, the remaining core will be asked to step up and fill the void not just from an on-field perspective: Slater and his fellow team captains — a group that included Devin McCourty, Dont’a Hightower, David Andrews and James White in 2019 — also need to find a way to lead the locker room into this new era.
Slater himself is already trying to set the course as his media conference call on Monday showed. The 34-year-old, who was scheduled to enter unrestricted free agency two weeks ago but eventually decided to re-sign in New England on a two-year contract extension, spoke about the leadership void created by Brady and company leaving town and pointed out that the organization needs to continue following a familiar road map.
“I don’t think the goals change at all. The standard doesn’t change at all. The pillars that we stand upon, they don’t change at all,” he said. “If you go into the season with a defeatist mindset, then you can’t expect to be successful. We have a great opportunity. We have a lot of good football players. We have a tremendous coaching staff. We have to go into the season expecting more from ourselves than anyone outside the building expects from us.”
“We have to go in with the same drive, the same focus, the same determination. If we don’t, you shouldn’t even step foot in the building, because we’re already going to be beat,” continued the three-time Super Bowl winner. “We’re going to have to be able to find a new identity for ourselves. I think part of that identity is going to be built upon things we’ve always stood for and will continue to stand for as long as this organization is led by the people it’s led by.”
Slater has been an integral part of this leadership group since shortly after he joined the Patriots as a fifth-round draft pick back in 2008. While making only a minimal impact at his listed position of wide receiver since, the UCLA product and son of Pro Football Hall of Famer Jackie Slater has developed into one of the best special teamers in the entire league and beyond that one most influential voices inside New England’s locker room.
Slater has been named a team captain every year since 2011, has been tasked with breaking down the traditional post-game huddle — a role previously held by Patriots legend Tedy Bruschi — and is serving as the Patriots’ player representative at the NFLPA. Needless to say that he will be at the forefront of the current transition period, despite his comparatively advanced age: Slater is still trying to lead by example and by carefully crafted statements.
“Selflessness, hard work, doing what’s best for the football team, serving one another, not having any level of expectation that things are going to be handed to us,” he said on Monday. “Certainly there is going to be an evolution that occurs within our locker room, an evolution that occurs within our offense. That time was going to come in some way, shape or form. What the void is, how we fill it, I can’t really speak to that right now. I think it’s important guys stay within themselves.”
“When you talk about Tom and everything he’s meant to this organization, and our team, a lot of our identity over the last 20 years has been centered around him,” Slater continued. “Any time you transition away from a player like that, it’s a tall task. You have to find a way to deal with that personally and process it. I think as a team, obviously, we’re going to have to process that Tom is gone. Do it in a healthy way, and be able to move on.”