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NFL Notes: Slater's impact reached well beyond the field

Matthew Slater's 239th and final NFL game was played just like his first: with the utmost professionalism.

Patriots special teams captain Matthew Slater.
Patriots special teams captain Matthew Slater.

Sitting in a small office wearing a knit winter cap and glasses, Matthew Slater does not strike the most intimidating pose among his teammates. In a league with players built like Greek Gods, Slater's modest 6-0, 205-pound frame doesn't scream Hall of Famer.

But listening to his strong words of leadership and desire makes it easy to understand why Bill Belichick leaned on him as one of the most important Patriots of his generation.

That day, Slater decided to return for a 16th season in New England, and the reasons he did so had little to do with football. Part of it was to get the stench of the way the 2022 season ended – a pair of Nyheim Hines kickoff returns for touchdowns in the finale at Buffalo – out of his memory. But it also had to do with his desire to continue to have an impact that stretched well beyond the field. His mere presence was enough to garner attention from teammates, and his tutelage was seen annually on the training camp fields in Foxborough, where his routine differed from that of most any other player in the league.

"I do believe that my role at this point is not just about covering kicks, blocking for returners," Slater said a few days after agreeing to return a year ago. "I think it's about fostering culture, building relationships and pouring into young men. You can do that in other capacities but the way you do that as a player is very different. The way you're able to connect with guys is very different.

"That's something I still have a lot of passion for and that's something I certainly wasn't ready to walk away from. That factored in huge into the decision because I feel like there are certain things you can do as a player that you can't do as an administrator or as a staff member. Things I felt like were unfinished in terms of relationships and culture so that definitely factored in."

With yet another exemplary season of commitment, leadership and perseverance under his belt, Salter decided to walk away from the game, announcing his retirement after 16 seasons. His professionalism is as high as any player who ever donned an NFL uniform, right alongside his Hall of Fame father Jackie Slater. That much was apparent right from the start.

Belichick raised some eyebrows when he selected Slater in the fifth round out UCLA back in 2008, using a pick on a player who had no formal position. There was skepticism among fans and media, and then Slater found himself in the crosshairs after a late-November home loss to Pittsburgh that damaged the team's playoff hopes.

Trailing 13-10 early in the third quarter, Slater replaced Ellis Hobbs as the kick returner and then was helpless as the ball bounced off his facemask and chest and the Steelers recovered at the Patriots 8. Two plays later it was 20-10 and the ensuing 33-10 rout was on.

"There's no excuse. You have to field the ball," a despondent Slater said after the game. "Yeah, it's wet. Yeah, there's rain. But I have to do my job. I do feel like I let the team down. You can't give up the ball inside the 10 or the 5 or whatever it was. I've got to do my job, and I didn't do my job. Simple as that. No excuses."

Slater has had plenty of teammates over the years who could have learned from his response. It was the kind of accountability that told onlookers that this would be no wasted draft pick. This kid with no position may not go on to score a lot of touchdowns but he will be just fine in whatever role Belichick gives him.

And that was certainly the case. Belichick recently referred to him as "the perfect Patriot" and included him on his would-be all-time team alongside stars like Tom Brady, Lawrence Taylor and Rob Gronkowski. And he proved to be worthy of that type of lofty comparison.

Watching Slater in training camp was truly a different experience. Unlike the other 80-plus players who are working with the offense or defense on various positional drills, Slater was on his own schedule. He typically spent hours refining techniques as a gunner or working on his footwork and hand placement as a vice blocker. He adjusted his angle when rushing a punt, or checked his body placement while trying to down a ball inside the 5-yard line.

While this individual work appeared mundane, it was vitally important for Slater. Instead of spending all of his time on his own, he annually has a couple of pupils with him each day. Players like Brenden Schooler, Cody Davis, Brandon King, Nate Ebner and countless others spent most of their time with the 10-time Pro Bowler and three-time Super Bowl champ.

"That definitely evolved," Slater said of the unique camp routine. "Earlier in my career I was still running around as a receiver or a safety. Back in 2017 I ruptured my hamstring tendon and after I came back in 2018, coach and I had a conversation on what my practice structure would look like and what would be most effective for me to stay healthy and prolong my career. That's what he decided and that's where he arrived."

Presenting some of the best images of Matthew Slater throughout his 16-year NFL career, all with the New England Patriots.

It's a role that Slater absolutely relished, and one that above all else was responsible for his longevity.

"That was really his idea, and it gave me a chance to hone my craft and preserve my body, only doing the things that realistically I was doing in the games," Slater said. "I give him a lot of credit. I don't think a lot of coaches in this league would allow a player to do that, I don't think any of them would, and it really provided me a platform to hone my skills and bring other guys along as well."

When Slater spoke about returning for the 2023 season, he admitted the Hines kickoff returns played a part. This time around he was part of Jalen Reagor's Week 17 kickoff return for a touchdown back in the very same stadium in Buffalo.

 "I did take [Hines' returns] hard," Slater said at the time. "Certainly you don't want to go out like that, but I think I have to be willing and ready to understand that you don't get to control how this ends. That's just the nature of the beast. I've talked to my dad a lot about that. He didn't necessarily end the way he wanted to end. A lot of guys … you don't get to choose how it ends.

"I'm hopeful that I can end things on my own terms. That's certainly my prayer so we'll see how it goes."

The season certainly did not offer the storybook ending that Slater and the Patriots were hoping for, but that did not impact the way he played the game each and every week.

Combined efforts

For the first time in at least a decade, the Patriots were represented by both coach and personnel department at the recently completed NFL Combine. First it was Eliot Wolf speaking at the podium in Indy, then Jerod Mayo spent some time with the local media – representing a departure from the norm we became accustomed to under Bill Belichick.

It was Wolf's press briefing that stood out, however. Most of what we've heard from the Patriots until this point has been about the need for open communication and collaborative thought. Wolf's comments were more directly tied to football, which was a welcome change.

He spoke about some alterations he's made to the grading system in scouting, the desire to play more young players and allowing them to develop, the need to become more explosive on offense and revealed he would have the final say when it came to the draft.

All of those points offered a glimpse into the football direction the new regime might be headed, which was refreshing to hear. Some tidbits that stood out:

On the quarterback class:

"It's a good year for quarterbacks. One trait that I'm really excited about, all these quarterbacks have, at least at the top of the draft, is they're all really tough guys. That's a great place to start at any position, but particularly quarterback. As the defensive linemen get faster and stronger, these guys get hit more often. Durability is really important."

On the new grading system:

"We changed the grading system. It's similar to what we did in Green Bay. The previous Patriots system was more, 'This is what the role is' and this is more kind of value-based. It makes it a lot easier for scouts to rate guys and put them in a stack of this guy's the best, this guy is the worst, and everything in between falls into place."

On his philosophy:

"At the core it's draft and develop. But there are different ways throughout the year to supplement your team, whether that's free agency, trades, waiver claims. You're doing yourself a disservice if you just say, 'Oh, we aren't going to do free agency this year. As we ascend in this program, there'll be times when it maybe doesn't make sense to sign as many high-priced free agents. But we have the resources, and we have a lot of improvement that's needed within the roster."

Tag deadline

The deadline to use the franchise tag has arrived and the Patriots have yet to use it. Teams have until 4 p.m ET on Tuesday to place a player under either the franchise of transition tag, but so far the Patriots have shied away from it. Both Wolf and Mayo expressed the desire to retain pending free agents Mike Onwenu and Kyle Dugger among others, but it's clear the tag wasn't the preferred method.

"That's always an option," Mayo said. "But at the same time, with guys like that, you want those guys to be happy. You want them to be here for the long term. So that's the plan."

A report indicated the Patriots have made an offer to Dugger, while Onwenu drew some praise from the brain trust as well.

"Mike's a core player for us," Wolf said last week. "It's no secret we want to try to keep Mike. He's certainly someone that we view as a cornerstone for us."

The franchise numbers seem too high for either Onwenu or Dugger, and in reality the Patriots don't really have a candidate that makes much sense given the need to rebuild. Extending one or both would be the much-preferred option as New England tries to implement Wolf's philosophy of drafting and developing talent. Retaining both would represent a departure from the Patriots recent course of action when it comes to re-signing drafted players. The ability to keep starters on a second contract is a valuable asset to have, and one the Patriots haven't had enough of over the past decade.

Also, it's important to keep in mind the the salary cap enjoyed an unprecedented bump in 2024, which is good news and bad news for the Patriots. While New England is awash in cap space with more than $100 million at its disposal, the unexpected spike means more space for the other teams as well, meaning more potential competition on the free agent market.

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