The New England Patriots under head coach Bill Belichick have never been afraid of investing considerable resources in their special teams units, and Matthew Slater is the perfect example for that approach.
Despite being listed as a wide receiver, Slater has only caught one pass over the course of his career. Nevertheless, he has built an impressive résumé since arriving in New England as a fifth-round draft pick in 2008. The now-34-year-old has helped the Patriots win three Super Bowls, is a nine-time captain and five-time first-team All-Pro, and was named to the organization’s Team of the 2010s just earlier this year.
Along the way, New England has spent almost $25 million in contract money on him. The investment certainly has paid off given Slater’s role and performance both on the field and in the locker room.
Jake Bailey has a long way to go to reach a similar status, but he appears to be on a solid way to at least give the Patriots another core kicking game presence for years to come.
Like Slater, Bailey was another considerable special teams investment made by the Patriots. They selected him in the fifth round of the draft — just like Slater, only 11 years later — and he instantly repaid the team by having a strong rookie campaign: after beating out veteran Ryan Allen in training camp, the youngster was named the AFC’s Special Teams Player of the Week twice and also finished the year with a solid gross average of 44.9 yards per punt. He furthermore took over kickoff duties following Stephen Gostkowski’s season-ending injury.
Bailey’s strong rookie campaign and follow-up practices have naturally caught Slater’s eye as well.
“The thing about Jake that makes him so unique in my opinion is just his leg strength,” he said during a media conference call earlier during camp. “This kid can hit the ball a mile, and he does it with great consistency. He really worked hard to refine his game on a lot of different levels.”
This process of refining his game is on full display during New England’s training camp so far. No matter if it comes to hang-time, range or accuracy, Bailey has been impressive while finding himself in the middle of the famous second-year jump. Most importantly, he appears to be much more consistent than he was at times in 2019: after taking over kickoff duties, Bailey’s punt game took a slight hit culminating in a disappointing wild card playoff game against the Tennessee Titans.
More than seven months removed from that contest, however, Bailey looks better than ever.
“The thing that I’ve appreciated and I’ve been really fortunate to have played with some great punters over the course of my career — and probably the reason I’m still playing, because they have been so good: the humility that exists amongst those guys has been fantastic. Jake is no different,” said Slater. “He’s a humble kid. He’s always looking to get better. He always takes ownership and responsibility for what he’s doing.
“And that goes a long way, he’s a great teammate. I really appreciate working with a kid like that. We have a relationship on and off the football field. I love playing with him. I have to get my legs loose and ready to go when he’s kicking that ball, because I know I will be running for a long time. He’s a weapon for us in the punting game. He’s a weapon for us on kickoffs.”
The Patriots did add another strong-legged kicker in the draft this year when they picked Marshall’s Justin Rohrwasser in Round Five, but the kickoff job will remain in Bailey’s hands this season. He has worked not just on punting the football in training camp, but also on kicking off — something that neither Rohrwasser nor recently signed veteran place kicker Nick Folk have done so far.
As for Slater, meanwhile, he did acknowledge that he had to go through an adjustment period after Bailey’s arrival: as opposed to the other punters employed by the team since 2008, he is a right-footed one.
“For the entirety of my career up until last year I have played with left-footed punters,” said the veteran special teamer who is entering his 13th season in the league. “It’s been a little bit of an adjustment getting used to the coverage angles and doing things a little differently, but he’s been a great addition for our football team and we’re excited about trying to get better over the course of training camp.”
When it comes to Bailey himself, his focus appears to simply be on improving his craft — even if that process takes place in a rather lonely setting away from the majority of his teammates that also play on either offense or defense. Still, the 23-year-old is trying to work out as creatively as he can in order to stay sharp and justify receiving the “weapon” title from Slater.
“You play games when you’re out there practicing. Like you’ll find a trash can on the side of the field and try and hit it into the trash can to simulate dropping it right on the 5. Or I also have landmarks, like trying to hit it as close to the sideline as possible, so just practicing good, realistic game reps any time you can,” he said. “But it’s also a lot better when I’m catching snaps from Joe Cardona.”
The Patriots’ special teams units were among the best in the NFL last year, and the power-couple that is Bailey and Slater are making sure it will continue to be this way.