Change is inevitable in life, which means the NFL is no exception. From one season to another, players and coaches move on.
For some, however, there is consistency and longevity. Matthew Slater, for example. The co-captain of New England’s special teams units has won three Super Bowls titles here and been named to numerous Pro Bowls. He’ll enter his 12th NFL season in 2019, each of them with the Patriots, after the Super Bowl Champions exercised the option on his contract earlier this offseason.
Yet, in his characteristically humble style, Slater maintained he’s taking nothing for granted.
“Thankful to still be a Patriot,” he smiled on a sunny spring afternoon in Foxborough Tuesday. “I was optimistic. Certainly thankful that Coach [Bill] Belichick has faith in me as a player and as a leader to keep me around… I still feel like I have to earn my position on this team, no different than it’s been any other year.”
With Slater leading the special teams, he’ll have the comfort of knowing his two kicking specialists – placekicker Stephen Gostkowski and punter Ryan Allen – will remain by his side, as both men re-signed with New England during the free agent signing period.
“Yeah, it’s exciting to have those guys back,” added Slater. “They mean a lot to what we do. They’ve been so consistent over the years, they have great chemistry together… It’s nice to have some familiarity, especially with those two guys in particular, but we have a lot of work to do.”
Slater expressed gratitude both for the return of Brandon Bolden, another longtime Patriots special teams contributor who had a one-year hiatus with the Miami Dolphins in 2018, and for having played alongside tight end Rob Gronkowski, who announced his retirement recently.
“Tremendous friend. I’m so appreciative of the way he always treated me,” Slater said of Gronkowski. “From the day that he got here till the day he left, he was so kind to me. Always made me feel like a friend. We had a unique relationship. I’m just so thankful for the nine years spent with him. It’s something I cherish as a man, as a teammate, as a fan of the game. I can’t say thank you enough to him for the experience of a lifetime getting a chance to play with him and watch him do what he did.
“His character remained the same, through all the success he had on the football field, he was still a fun-loving kid who just enjoyed being around people. I think that’s the thing I appreciated about him the most. Rob was always Rob. You knew he was always going to come in with a smile on his face and have a good time.”
New England’s coaching staff is also undergoing rare and significant changes. Among those who’ve moved on to other teams in the league are Slater’s former position coach, Chad O’Shea, and character coach Jack Easterby, with whom Slater enjoyed a close personal tie.
“I hope to maintain relationships with those guys,” he continued. “I wish them nothing but the best, but for the time being, I’m excited to work with the guys who are here.”
At this time of year, when clubs are in team-building mode, acquiring players via veteran free agency and the upcoming NFL Draft, there isn’t a lot of time to work on the field. The offseason training program began Monday here at Gillette Stadium, giving players like Slater, his returning friends on the roster, and the newcomers a chance to start forging their bond off the field. Slater emphasized that “relationships are vital” to creating a winning environment, which the Patriots have enjoyed for the better part of nearly two decades.
“That process is a fun one. We look forward to going through it throughout the spring and summer,” he concluded. “Very excited. Thankful for another opportunity, another year, a new group of guys to start working alongside, so, it’s an exciting time of year.”