Coming off a 2021 season that saw them return to the playoffs but eventually come up short on wild card weekend, the New England Patriots have a long list of to-dos this offseason. One of its items is bringing back players who are scheduled to enter free agency.
There are quite a few of them: all in all, 18 players that were with New England last year are in need of a new contract. Among them is special teamer Matthew Slater, who is an unrestricted free agent and will therefore hit the open market on March 16.
Name: Matthew Slater
Position: Wide receiver/Special teamer
Jersey number: 18
Opening day age: 37
Size: 5-foot-11, 205 pounds
Contract status: Unrestricted free agent
What is his experience? Slater arrived in New England as the 153rd overall selection in the 2008 NFL Draft. Despite being listed as a wide receiver, he started his career primarily in the kicking game: he served as a core member on kickoff and punt coverage, and also as the Patriots’ number two kick returner behind Ellis Hobbs. His usage changed slightly through the years, with Slater’s opportunities as a return man 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 of all time. 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 10 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 was therefore one of the central figures of New England’s second-era dynasty. In total, he appeared in 206 regular season and 25 playoff contests for the club, was voted a 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 46-yard reception and two carries for a combined 11 yards on his résumé, as well as 12 tackles as an emergency defensive back and 180 more in the kicking game.
What did his 2021 season look like? Even though the Patriots’ special teams unit as a whole struggled throughout the 2021 season — the group gave up a league-high four blocked kicks, for example — its captain and most experienced player had another very good individual campaign. In a way, the season was business as usual for Slater: the 36-year-old was voted a captain for the 11th year in a row year, and saw more snaps in the kicking game than any of his teammates.
In total, Slater was on the field in all 17 of the Patriots’ regular season games as well as their wild card playoff loss in Buffalo. Along the way, he was on the field for 373 of a possible 464 snaps in the game’s third phase. His playing time share of 80.4 percent was the highest on the roster, while he ended the season ranked second in special teams tackles: Slater registered 13 combined takedowns as a member of New England’s kickoff and punt coverage units, trailing only Cody Davis’ 15.
On top of his work as a gunner on the punt coverage team and front-line defender on Patriots kickoffs, he also was used on the two return squads as well as the field goal/extra point blocking unit. In those roles he helped the Patriots post some solid numbers in the return game (numbers that were unfortunately overshadowed by the bad kick protection performances): while New England gained an average of 11.3 and 21.8 yards in the punt and kick return game, respectively, opponents yielded only 8.6 and 21.2.
His impact in the kicking game was once again impressive, but Slater did again not play as prominent a role at his listed position of wide receiver. He was on the field for just 16 of a possible 1,169 offensive snaps (1.4%) and for the fifth year in a row did not register any statistics. When called upon to take the field on offense, the veteran had a clearly defined role: he served as the deep man on kneel-down plays. The Patriots used him as such on all 16 of his snaps on the offensive side of the ball.
Even though he earned another Pro Bowl nomination for his work on special teams, Slater’s biggest impact on the Patriots’ roster might just have come in the locker room. He was a leading voice on a team moving away from the Tom Brady era — as well as Cam Newton’s one-year stint as starting quarterback — and into the Mac Jones era. Slater could not prevent the team’s late-season collapse, but his leadership helped the team bounce back after a disappointing 2-4 start to the season.
Free agency preview
What is his contract history? Slater joined the Patriots on a four-year rookie deal with a total value of $1.89 million. Upon entering free agency in 2012, he re-signed with the club on a three-year extension worth $5.4 million. He signed two more extensions in 2014 and 2016, to stay under contract through the 2017 season. Slater tested free agency the following offseason, but eventually returned to the Patriots on a two-year, $5 million deal. He put his signature under another extension in 2020. In total, Slater’s contractual career earnings are estimated at $25 million by Over the Cap.
Which teams might be in the running? Slater has indicated in the past that he would only be playing for the Patriots, basically limiting the number of teams in the running down to one: New England. In case something changes, however, clubs who struggled on special teams in 2021 could be seen as theoretical landing spots. Those include the Las Vegas Raiders, Chicago Bears and New Orleans Saints.
Why should he be expected back? Even at age 36, Slater was still among the most valuable players on the Patriots’ roster. Not only is he still among the best special teamers in the NFL, he also continues to serve as a leader and tone-setter — a role that cannot be underestimated with the team handing its keys over to the next generation of players. Keeping Slayer on another short-term deal would help make this transition work.
Why should he be expected to leave? Unless the Patriots believe Slater is no longer worth an investment on another short-term contract, there is only one other reason why he should not be expected back in 2022: retirement. That said, it appears as if he is willing to continue his career for at least one more season. The ball therefore appears to be in the team’s court; if it decides he is worth being brought back that is likely what will happen.
What is his projected free agency outcome? With Slater reportedly planning to add a 15th season to his already impressive career, anything but him returning to the Patriots would be a major surprise. The question therefore becomes what his new contract would look like. The last two deals he signed both covered two seasons, but moving into one-year territory makes sense given his age. A pact for the 2022 season at a cost of around $2 million would be a fair one for both sides.
Will the Patriots re-sign Matthew Slater?
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