Following the NFL draft and subsequent free agency period, the New England Patriots currently have 89 of a possible 90 players under contract. However, only 53 of them will be able to survive roster cutdowns on September 5 and ultimately make the active team. Over the course of spring and summer, just like we have in years past, we will take a look at the players fighting for those spots to find out who has the best chances of helping the Patriots keep their dynasty alive in Year One after Tom Brady.
Today, the series continues with the longest-tenured Patriot.
Name: Matthew Slater
Position: Wide receiver/Special teamer
Jersey number: 18
Opening day age: 35
Size: 5-foot-11, 205 pounds
Contract status: Under contract through 2021 (2022 UFA)
What is his experience? Slater arrived in New England as the 153rd overall selection in the 2008 NFL draft, and started his career primarily in the kicking game despite being listed as a wide receiver: he served as a core member on kickoff and punt coverage, and also as the Patriots’ number two kick returner behind Ellis Hobbs during his rookie season. His usage changed slightly through the years, with Slater’s opportunities as a returnman being limited from 2010 on (24 of his 38 career kickoff returns came in 2008 and 2009).
Along the way, however, he developed into one of the best coverage players in all of football. Regularly being among the team leaders in special teams tackles and other impact plays in the return game, the former fifth-round draft choice earned eight Pro Bowl nominations and was named first-team All-Pro five times — all while helping the Patriots win three Super Bowls. On those championship squads, Slater did not just serve as a special teams leader but also as one of the most vocal members in the entire locker room.
Slater is therefore one of the central figures of New England’s second-era dynasty. He appeared in 173 regular season and 23 playoff contests for the club, was voted team captain every year since 2011, and embodies the team’s “Do Your Job”-mentality by seeing action in all three phases over the course of his Patriots career: he has one career reception on his résumé (for 46 yards), 12 tackles as an emergency defensive back, and 160 takedowns on special teams coverage.
What did his 2019 season look like? Before the start of the NFL’s 2019 league year, the Patriots exercised a $400,000 option clause that triggered the second season of a contract Slater had originally signed in 2018. The move was a sheer formality, but it showed that the team was confident in the veteran despite his comparatively advanced age. Slater repaid that trust in him by delivering arguably the best season of his career — regularly proving his value to the organization both on and off the field.
Slater appeared in all 16 of New England’s regular season games and the its lone playoff contest, and saw action in all three phases of the game. Offensively, he played a combined 21 of a possible 1,210 snaps (1.7%) as a deep man on kneel-downs as well as an in-line receiver. Just like he did in the previous two years as well, he did not register any statistics while playing his primary position. The same goes for his other role as a rotational safety in Hail Mary situations: he played three snaps but did not show up on the stat sheet.
As was the case throughout his 12-year career, his biggest on-field impact came in the kicking game. Slater led the team in special teams snaps with 347 (of 474; 73.2%) and regularly was around the football as his team-high 10 tackles illustrate. He also forced one fumble, recovered another, blocked a punt and furthermore scored the first touchdown of his NFL career: in Week 4 against the Buffalo Bills, Slater fielded a punt-block by teammate J.C. Jackson and returned the ball 11 yards into the end zone.
Slater’s standout play despite drawing special attention at times earned him another trip to the Pro Bowl as well as more first-team All-Pro recognition, and helped the Patriots field one of the stoutest special teams units in the league. Comparing New England’s statistics to that of its opponents shows this: while the Patriots’ returners averaged 21.7 and 8.5 yards per kickoff and punt return, respectively, other teams were able to gain only 20.9 and 6.3 yards against their Slater-led coverage crews.
Slater was also once again voted a team captain and played a vital role as a leader on the squad — one that regularly spoke in candid yet guiding tone following some of the Patriots’ in-season problems and their earliest playoff exit in a decade. All in all, the 2019 season was therefore business as usual for him to a certain extent: Slater stood out both on and off the field and was instrumental in leading the team with his performance and demeanor.
What is his projected role? While Slater is officially listed as a wide receiver, his role in 2020 is projected to look like it did the previous years: he will see the vast majority of his snaps as a core member of New England’s kicking game squads, and serve as a gunner on coverage teams as well as a force player on kickoff return and punt protection units. Furthermore, Slater will also again be employed as the deep man on kneel-down plays and possibly again as a rotational safety in end-of-half situations.
What is his special teams value? Even though he will turn 35 in the week leading up to the Patriots’ regular season opener, Slater is still expected to be among the best kicking game players in the NFL this year. His value cannot be underestimated, not just from a purely statistical perspective but also through the lens of opponents having to regularly invest resources in double-teaming him on the line of scrimmage — in turn making the job of the other coverage players on New England’s roster easier.
Does he have positional versatility? Given his usage in the kicking game, his versatility stems primarily from the game’s third phase. The Patriots do not just use him as a four-unit performer, but also all over the formation on a regular basis: whether it is playing on the left or right side of the formation on both punt and kick coverage or filling numerous front-line spots on the two return squads, New England’s coaching staff likes to move Slater around to create potential mismatches. On top of it all, he also has experience playing the X-wide receiver role on offense and both cornerback and free safety on the defensive side of the ball.
What is his salary cap situation? Before the start of this year’s legal tampering period, New England signed Slater to a two-year, $5.35 million contract to keep him from entering unrestricted free agency. As part of this pact, the future Patriots Hall of Famer will be on the team’s books with a salary cap hit of $2.48 million in 2020 — a number that would not be reduced even in the highly unlikely case of a release. His contract is therefore further proof of his status as a roster lock.
What is his roster outlook? Barring injury, Slater is a lock to make New England’s 53-man roster this year due to his experience, outstanding play in the kicking game, and status as a team captain. The latter role will be especially important this year considering the offseason departure of Tom Brady and other cornerstone players of years past: Slater’s leadership will be critical in helping the Patriots transition from the Brady to the post-Brady era.