No special teams player in football is as accomplished as Matthew Slater. Not only has he won three Super Bowls with the New England Patriots, he also was voted to eight Pro Bowls and has been named a first-team All-Pro in five different seasons. When it comes to special teams play in the NFL, Slater is the gold standard. And yet, the 34-year-old is constantly trying not just to maintain his high level of play but to actually get even better.
This becomes evident in training camp every single day. Time and again, Slater is lining up by himself while his teammates are going through various drills on either side of the ball. The longest-tenured Patriot, meanwhile, has a different focus: he is not trying to finally break out at his listed position of wide receiver — Slater’s lone career reception came nine years ago, on opening day 2011 — but rather to meticulously work on his craft.
Already among the most decorated players in football, Slater continues to strive for excellence even in his 13th year in the league.
“I never feel like I’ve done enough. I always feel like the coaches are challenging me to be better, but no one challenges me more than myself,” Slater said during a media conference call following Thursday’s training camp practice. “I enjoy the process. It is a very unique situation I’m in — sometimes you feel like ‘Man, I wonder how my guys are doing over there in the receiver room? I wonder how my guys are doing in the backend, in the secondary?’ — but there’s plenty of time for me to catch up with them.”
“My focus is just trying to get better, trying to work and earn my way onto this football team.”
Slater’s mindset has allowed him to maintain a high level of play year-in and year-out. And yet, the 2019 season might have been his best one to date. Not only did he lead the Patriots in special teams snaps and regularly was around the football as his team-high 10 tackles illustrate, he also forced a fumble, recovered another, blocked a punt and scored the first touchdown of his NFL career: in Week 4 against the Buffalo Bills, Slater fielded a blocked punt by teammate J.C. Jackson and returned the ball 11 yards into the end zone.
The results and accolades are a testament to Slater’s preparation — one that has changed a bit since he first arrived in the league as a fifth-round draft pick in 2008.
“It’s really amazing to think how things have evolved for me as a player over the years,” he said. “Early on in my career it was more about effort and just understanding schemes. It’s still about effort and understanding schemes, but I think now just refining techniques. And there’s so many little things that come into play, especially when you talk about a position like gunner where a lot of times it’s going to be two-on-one. You need as many tools in your toolbox as you can possibly have to try to win those matchups.
“We go back, we look at film, we see the areas that maybe I’ve struggled in, and we try to go find answers for those problems,” Slater continued. “That’s the beauty of the coaches that we have here and the way that they think: they’re always trying to provide solutions, and then we’re going drill that. We create drills and Cam [Achord] will have a script for me: ‘Today, this is what we’re going to work on.’ Depending on what the emphasis is in practice — if it’s the return game or if it’s coverage units — then we’re going to drill those things.”
This approach is not a new one for Slater, who previously worked together with fellow special teams ace Nate Ebner. The circumstances did change in 2020, however. Not only is Ebner gone after signing with the New York Giants in free agency, New England also had to hire a new kicking game coach: Joe Judge, who was with the Patriots for eight seasons, including five leading the unit, is the Giants’ new head coach. In his place, Cam Achord took over.
Achord is no stranger when it comes to working with his most experienced player, though. He has served as Judge’s assistant the last two years before taking over his now-vacant former role earlier this offseason. Despite the personnel change, Slater’s workout routine remains unchanged.
“I think for me personally that’s been very beneficial,” he said. “It’s no different than a receiver running cone drills and working on the top of his routes. For me, those hand-to-hand techniques, or finishing on the return, or blocking schemes and techniques, that’s my game. I’m really appreciative of our coaches being so detail-oriented and going out there with a plan and a purpose, not just trying to slap it out there. I really feel good about the plan we have each and every day. It brings me a lot of enjoyment.
“My routine has evolved over the years, but I am grateful to be working alongside some great coaches and great specialists. I really enjoy spending time with those guys. It’s unique — I realize I’m in a very unique position, but I find joy in my work each and every day I try to refine my craft,” he added.
Refining his craft also includes studying other players, and Slater does not have to look far to find some special teams quality: teammates Justin Bethel and Cody Davis are among the better kick coverage players in football.
Bethel first arrived in New England last season following his release by the Baltimore Ravens. The veteran quickly earned a role as the gunner opposite Slater, and proved himself a consistent playmaker by registering six tackles — tied for fourth most on the team in 2019 despite not being on the roster for seven games — as well as two fumble recoveries. Davis, meanwhile, was signed as a free agent in March to help replace the departed Nate Ebner.
Both men are experienced special teamers, and players that Slater has been looking up to.
“I look at players like Justin Bethel or Cody Davis, and having a chance to work with them now hand-in-hand... There’s things that they do, that are part of their game, that I don’t do as well and I think that I can try to incorporate those things,” he said. “The saying goes ‘You can’t teach an old dog new tricks’ — this old dog is still trying to learn new tricks. I embrace that challenge.
“I think you should never get to a place where you feel like you have it all figured out. You should always be searching for more knowledge, more understanding of the game, and trying to improve yourself. When that process stops, when you stop evolving in that way, it’s probably time for you to stop playing. I don’t think I have reached that point yet.”