With the third phase of voluntary offseason workouts underway, the New England Patriots are already fully “on to 2021.”
The team currently has 90 players under contract, but only 53 of them will be able to survive roster cutdowns in early September 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 bounce back from what was a disappointing 7-9 season last year.
Today, the series kicks continues with wide receiver and special teamer Matthew Slater.
Name: Matthew Slater
Position: Wide receiver/Special teamer
Jersey number: 18
Opening day age: 36
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 nine 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 189 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 167 takedowns on special teams coverage.
What did his 2020 season look like? Before the start of the 2020 legal tampering period, New England re-signed Slater to a two-year, $5.35 million contract to keep him from entering unrestricted free agency. The move seemed like a sheer formality, but it showed that the team was confident in the veteran despite his comparatively advanced age. Slater repaid that trust by delivering another impressive season as a core member of the Patriots’ special teams units as well as a leader in the locker room.
The veteran appeared in all 16 of New England’s games and saw action in the kicking game as well as on the offensive side of the ball. He finished second on the team with 332 of a possible 399 special teams snaps (83.6%) and regularly was around the football as is illustrated by his 7 tackles. While he did not have the same volume of big plays as he did a year ago, the veteran still managed to help the Patriots regularly win the field position battle: Slater was repeatedly the first man down the field, and also downed one punt.
Slater’s standout play despite drawing special attention at times earned him another trip to the Pro Bowl as well as second-team All-Pro recognition. It also helped the Patriots field one of the stoutest special teams units in the league yet again. This becomes obvious when comparing New England’s statistics to those of its opponents: while the Patriots’ returners averaged 23.1 and 15.5 yards per kickoff and punt return, respectively, other teams were able to gain only 21.3 and 5.9 yards against the Slater-led coverage crews.
While his impact in the kicking game was once again impressive, Slater — as usual — did not play as prominent a role at his listed position of wide receiver. In total, he was on the field for just 5 of a possible 1,011 offensive snaps (0.5%) and for the fourth year in a row did not register any statistics again. When called upon to take the field on offense, the 35-year-old had a clearly defined role: he served in his traditional role as the deep man on kneel-down plays. With the Patriots in few situations like that, however, he saw limited action.
Slater’s biggest impact, however, might have come in the locker room. He was once again voted a team captain and played a vital role as a leader on the squad in the first year after Tom Brady’s departure. Even with Brady gone and the Patriots struggling to their first losing season in two decades, Slater played an important role in keeping the team together. All in all, Slater therefore stood out off as well as on the field and was instrumental in leading the team with both his performance and his demeanor.
What is his projected role? While Slater is officially listed as a wide receiver, his role in 2021 is projected to look like it did for most of his career: 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 36 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? Entering the final season of a two-year, $5.35 million contract extension he signed last spring, Slater is hitting the Patriots’ books with a salary cap number of $3 million. While New England could create net savings of roughly $1.5 million by parting ways with him, such a move is unlikely to happen: the long-time team captain and his cap hit will stay on the books for 2021.
What is his roster outlook? As noted above, Slater is not going anywhere: he is a lock to make the Patriots’ 53-man roster based on his value both on and off the field, as well as his qualities as one of the league’s elite kick coverage players and as a team leader. The biggest question surrounding him is whether or not the 2021 season will be the last of his Hall of Fame-caliber career: playing on the final year of his contract at age 36, Slater is a realistic candidate to call it a career after the season.