With free agency and the draft firmly in the rear-view mirror and organized team activities underway, the New England Patriots are already fully “on to 2022.”
The team currently has 85 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 men fighting for those spots to find out who has the best chances of helping the Patriots build on their 10-7 record.
Today, the series continues with veteran special teamer Matthew Slater.
Name: Matthew Slater
Position: Special teamer/Wide receiver
Jersey number: 18
Opening day age: 37
Size: 5-foot-11, 205 pounds
Contract status: Under contract through 2022 (2023 UFA)
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.
What is his projected role? While Slater is officially listed as a wide receiver, his role in 2022 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 even as a rotational deep safety in end-of-half situations.
Does he have positional versatility? Given his usage in the kicking game, his versatility stems primarily from the game’s third phase. The Patriots use him as a five-unit performer, and also move him 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. Realistically, though, he will not see much if any non-kneel-down playing time outside of special teams.
What is his special teams value? Even though he will turn 37 two days before 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.
What is his salary cap situation? The Patriots re-signed Slater to a one-year contract before the start of free agency. The deal has a fully-guaranteed value of $2.62 million, but counts only $1.27 million against the salary cap. Why? Because Slater meets the criteria for a so-called Four-Year Player Qualifying Contract; New England is therefore allowed to allocate $1.35 million of his $2.47 million salary as a bonus not counted versus the cap. As a result, only his $1.12 million minimum-level salary plus a $152,500 signing bonus actually hit the team’s books this season.
How safe is his roster spot? Slater is a lock to make the Patriots’ 53-man roster this year, and it is not hard to see why. He remains one of the team’s most important players on and especially off the field, while his contract situation would make cutting him a bad business decision on top of it: New England would take on $2.62 million in dead money and actually lose cap space when releasing him. Slater will therefore be back for a 15th season, and again serve as a top-tier special teamer and leader in the locker room.
One-sentence projection: Slater will be voted a team captain yet again and finish the 2022 season among the leaders in several special teams categories, including snaps and tackles.