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2022 NFL free agency: What re-signing Matthew Slater means for the Patriots

Related: Patriots reportedly set to re-sign captain Matthew Slater for 15th season

New England Patriots v Los Angeles Chargers Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

The New England Patriots’ first move after the official opening of the NFL’s legal tampering window involved a familiar face. The team is reportedly retaining long-time team captain and special teams ace Matthew Slater on a one-year, $2.62 million contract.

Slater staying put was expected. Despite already being 36 years old, the future Patriots (and Pro Football?) Hall of Famer was getting ready to return for a 15th NFL season and there was only one team realistically signing him: the one that originally drafted him in 2008.

What does Slater returning for another season mean, though? Let’s find out.

Slater becomes the latest team leader to be retained

The early theme of New England’s free agency is “leadership.” After the team already retained Devin McCourty over the weekend and Brian Hoyer on Monday morning, it has now taken care of another long-time locker room leader: like McCourty, Slater has been a captain for the past 11 seasons and a tone-setter both on and off the field.

The Patriots have therefore now re-signed two of the four captains headed for free agency. The others remain unaccounted for at the moment: linebacker Dont’a Hightower and running back James White are both expected to continue their careers, but there is no telling at the moment whether it will happen in New England or some place else.

Because of that uncertainty, keeping a seasoned and respected player such as Slater is a good move for the Patriots.

New England’s kicking game unit keeps its most experienced player

As noted above, Slater first joined the Patriots in 2008 and has held a prominent role in the kicking game ever since.

Just last year, his special teams playing time share of 80.4 percent was the highest on the roster. He also ended the season ranked second in 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. While New England’s special teams unit as a whole had a rough time in 2021 — the group gave up a league-high four blocked kicks — its captain and most experienced player had another very good individual campaign.

Re-signing Slater is therefore not just a move aimed at keeping the team’s leadership cabal intact, but also a unit likely expected to see some personnel changes.

Slater’s cap number might be below the reported $2.62 million

Even though the Patriots are signing Slater to a fully-guaranteed deal worth $2.62 million, chances are that his eventual salary cap hit is lower. The reason for that is the NFL’s four-year qualifying contract benefit.

NFL.com defines a four-year qualifying contract as follows:

[I]t can be offered to a player with at least four credited seasons whose contract with a team has expired after being on said team for four or more consecutive, uninterrupted league years prior to his contract expiring. Such a player must have been on the team’s 90-man active/inactive list for said seasons (and every regular-season and postseason game). Teams can sign a maximum of two eligible players to this type of salary benefit.

In basic terms, the Patriots would be able to reduce Slater’s cap impact by paying him the minimum salary for a player of his experience (i.e. $1.12 million) while declaring parts of the rest of the reported $2.62 million as a benefit.

In short, Slater’s cap impact might eventually turn out to be significantly lower than $2.62 million — despite the entire sum being guaranteed.