Talk about a positive start into the weekend. The New England Patriots announced on Friday afternoon that veteran special teamer and long-time captain Matthew Slater will be back for a 16th season with the team.
Slater returning is obviously good news for the club on various levels. So, let’s briefly assess what the announcement means for the team heading into 2023.
New England’s longest-tenured player will be back: Slater originally joined the Patriots as a fifth-round draft pick in 2008 and has been the club’s elder statesman ever since Tom Brady left during the 2020 offseason. Despite turning 38 in September, he is apparently not ready to hand over that baton just yet, and instead will keep adding to what might very well already be a Hall of Fame résumé — one that includes 248 games, three Super Bowl wins, and several individual accolades.
Slater’s return helps solidify the Patriots’ special teams units...: Even with Slater in the fold, New England’s kicking game unit was not able to live up to expectations in 2022. The group struggled on several occasions and gave up a total of three kickoff return touchdowns on the year — including two against Buffalo in the season finale.
That said, the unit is undoubtably a better one with the veteran in the lineup. Slater, after all, is still one of the NFL’s better special teamers and a player who commands extra attention from opponents, which in turn frees up his teammates to make an impact. He still manages to make his fair share of plays himself, though, and ranked second on the team with 13 total tackles last year.
...but they still need to be addressed this offseason: Slater being back is just the first domino to fall for the Patriots when it comes to special teams. It will not be the only one given the club’s disappointing outing last year and uncertainty surrounding several players: long snapper Joe Cardona and fellow core special teamer Cody Davis are free agents, while punter Jake Bailey was suspended down the stretch.
What the team’s next moves at those spots will look like remains to be seen, but changes might be in the cards. That is true not just for the roster but the coaching staff as well.
Even though it appears Cam Achord will be back as special teams coordinator, the team might implement some changes. Joe Judge, for example, might return to work in some capacity with the kicking game group this upcoming season after not resuming his role as quarterbacks coach in 2023.
A core leader stays put: Slater’s value to the organization extends beyond his experience and abilities in the kicking game: he also has been voted a captain every year since 2011, and as such is a tone-setter in the locker room.
His return means that at least five of six team captains from last year are virtually guaranteed to be back with the team in 2023 as well: Slater joins quarterback Mac Jones, center David Andrews, defensive lineman Deatrich Wise Jr. and linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley. The lone question mark at this point in time is safety Devin McCourty.
Speaking of whom...
All eyes are now on Devin McCourty: Like Slater, McCourty entered the offseason uncertain about his future; turning 36 in August, he too is a candidate for retirement. Additionally, his contract is set to void at the start of the new league year in mid-March, meaning that the Patriots need to re-sign him before that point if they want to keep him from entering the open market.
While his situation is independent from Slater’s, one has to wonder whether or not Friday’s announcement also might prompt McCourty to soon make a decision about his own future.
You can cross one player from the list of free agents: Following the release of wide receiver Kristian Wilkerson earlier this week, the Patriots had 20 players headed for free agency. Slater is one of them, but Friday’s announcement all but guarantees the two sides will find a way to work the financial matters out yet again: they will eventually reach an agreement on a new contract, if they have not already.
The only questions are when that deal will become official, and whether it will again qualify for Four-Year Veteran Benefit status (thus lowering its cap impact).
Slater will get a chance to work with Bill O’Brien, sparking hopes of a second career catch: Slater is officially listed as a wide receiver on the Patriots’ roster, but he has had virtually no impact on offense through the first 15 seasons of his career. One notable exception came on opening day 2011, when he caught his first and only pass — a 46-yard bomb from Tom Brady against the Miami Dolphins:
2011 Week 1 Slater! pic.twitter.com/9Kf24Bkf7u— RandomTomBradyHighlights (@TomBradyDaily) August 11, 2022
The person calling that play? That would be none other than Bill O’Brien, who served as offensive coordinator that season and who is back in that same role now.
The chances of Slater catching another pass are alive and well, at least in theory.
New England does not need a new deep man on kneel-downs: We have reached the “minor aspects of his return” portion of this analysis, but Slater’s role with the Patriots is in fact bigger than special teams: he also is the deep man on kneel-down plays. One less area to worry about heading into 2023.
The Patriots’ unusual transparency continues: This has nothing to do with Slater per se, but New England continues to make surprising communication choices. The team announcing a player coming back instead of retiring was not to be expected, but the organization opted to go that route — something that is also true for an earlier statement this offseason about the offensive coordinator search and contract extension talks with linebackers coach Jerod Mayo.