The New England Patriots’ potential leadership exodus was a major but underreported storyline heading into the offseason. Not only was the team looking at losing long-time assistant coaches, four team captains were also scheduled to enter unrestricted free agency.
With the exception of linebacker Dont’a Hightower, who remains unsigned, the team was able to bring all of them back into the fold. Safety Devin McCourty and special teamer Matthew Slater were re-signed to one-year contract extensions, with running back James White returning via a new two-year pact.
During the NFL’s annual meeting in Palm Beach, FL, this week, head coach Bill Belichick spoke about all three of them and their importance to the Patriots’ leadership.
“Great to have Devin back, great to have Matt back. Glad we were able to work things out. Those are two fantastic people as well as players. They mean a lot to the organization, they’re great role models and great players,” Belichick said about McCourty and Slater.
“I feel very fortunate to have coached two of the best at the position that have ever played. Certainly Matt Slater will go up there in the kicking game with [Tom] Brady on offense and [Lawrence] Taylor on defense. I feel very, very fortunate to have had the opportunity to coach all of the players, but I’d say those three in particular.”
A potential future Pro Football Hall of Famer, Slater joined the Patriots in 2008 and has been the team’s longest-tenured player since Brady and kicker Stephen Gostkowski left in 2020. While he has had only a limited impact at his listed position of wide receiver, Slater’s special teams prowess and leadership have made him a valuable member of New England’s Dynasty 2.0.
Like Slater, McCourty has also become an important part of the Patriots’ culture. A first-round draft choice in 2010, he was named a captain the following year and has remained in that position ever since.
Last year, McCourty and Slater were joined by the aforementioned Dont’a Hightower as well as center David Andrews and running back James White.
“Look forward to seeing James,” Belichick said about the 30-year-old, who ended the 2021 campaign on injured reserve. “He’s certainly worked hard, made a lot of progress. When we start the offseason program we will see where things are at that point.
“James is another fantastic person, he’s been a multiple-year captain. Great work-ethic, great role model for our younger backs — [Rhamondre] Stevenson, Damien [Harris], J.J. [Taylor], [Devine Ozigbo], and [Ty] Montgomery now.”
White was first named a captain in 2018, and is one of the veteran leaders not just in the running back room but on offense in general. With the team transitioning away from the Tom Brady era and towards second-year quarterback Mac Jones, he and the rest of the captains are playing an important role.
Re-signing three of four so far, and having Andrews stay put as well, is therefore an important development for the team. It appears Belichick sees it the same way.