Rob Gronkowski left in 2019. Tom Brady and Stephen Gostkowski left one year later. Patrick Chung and Julian Edelman joined them this offseason. Sooner rather than later, Devin McCourty and Dont’a Hightower will also depart, as will Matthew Slater.
One after the other, the key members of the New England Patriots’ Dynasty 2.0 — or, in Brady’s case, 1.0 as well — are starting to pack their bags. They are either retiring, as was the case with Chung and Edelman, or taking their talents elsewhere through free agency or release. Regardless of how they leave, they will have to be replaced.
Recently, the Patriots have had a hard time doing that.
Gronkowski’s contributions were not replaced the last two years, leading to some heavy investments during free agency earlier this year. Brady, the greatest quarterback of all time, can never fully be replaced, but the position still struggled mightily in the first season after his departure. How Chung’s and Edelman’s roles will be filled remains to be seen — something that can also be said about McCourty, Hightower and Slater.
The latter therefore recently had a clear message to the rest of the team: take control. Speaking with the media on a conference call, Slater said that the young guard needs to take over because neither he nor other long-time cornerstones will be around forever.
“This organization has had players that have come through here, starting with Tom [Brady] and others that you just don’t replace. And you don’t try to be that guy. You’ve just got to be yourself. So, look, we need guys to be tough. We need guys to be accountable. When the time is right, we need guys to be vocal and try to encourage their teammates to bring their game to another level,” Slater said.
“I’m excited to see who steps up, how guys lead. I think young guys need to start taking ownership of this football team because the old guard only has so much time here left. I look forward to seeing that next wave, that next generation of leaders and men who are really going to try to take ownership of this team.”
Slater spoke specifically about replacing the aforementioned Julian Edelman, but his words can be applied to the team’s overall transition away from the Tom Brady era.
Where the leadership will come from remains to be seen, but Slater has done his best to give other players an opportunity to step up. Last season, for example, he stepped down as the team’s NFLPA representative. Instead, he let another group of players — long snapper Joe Cardona, running back James White, guard Joe Thuney, linebacker Brandon Copeland — take over.
There comes a point in time where you serve in certain capacities and you kind of just feel like, ‘My time is going to run its course.’ For me, I served in that role for nine years and I know that I’m closer to the end of my career than I am the beginning. I think it’s important that young players take ownership and understand the way that this league operates, the business side of this league, the player safety side of this league,” Slater said.
“We want our young men to be educated and to be involved and to really take ownership in what they’re doing. So, I felt the Lord telling me, ‘OK, it’s time for you to step aside in this role.’ I thought about it, I talked to some of the leadership at the union, and I felt like it was a good time for me to step away.”
With Thuney and Copeland leaving in free agency, only two of the players to replace Slater at the union last year are still with the Patriots. Needless to say that others will have to step up in this capacity, and once the 35-year-old decides to end his playing days as well.
There are some obvious candidates on the roster already, especially when looking at the next generation of Patriots. First-round rookie Mac Jones is the obvious choice as New England’s quarterback of the future, but others such as safety Kyle Dugger, linebacker Chase Winovich and running back Damien Harris also need to be considered.
Regardless of who steps up, the Patriots need them to be ready once those Slaters, McCourtys and Hightowers decide to call it a career as well.