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 continues to lean on him as one of the most important Patriots of his generation.
Slater decided to return for a 16th season in New England, and although he continues to set the standard as a special teams ace for the Patriots, the reason he's back has very little to do with football.
A few of our favorite photos of special teams captain Matthew Slater from the 2022 season.
His impact stretches well beyond the field, where he once again was among the league leaders in special teams tackles even in the midst of a down year for the Patriots in that regard. His mere presence is enough to garner attention from teammates, and his tutelage can be seen annually on the training camp fields in Foxborough where his routine differs 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. "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."
Watching Slater in camp is truly a different experience. Unlike the other 80-plus players who are working with the offense or defense or various positional drills, Slater is on his own schedule. He typically spends hours refining his techniques as a gunner or working on his footwork and hand placement as a vice blocker. He adjusts his angle when rushing a punt, or checks his body placement while trying to down a ball inside the 5-yard line.
While this individual work can appear mundane, it's 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. In 2022 it was Brenden Schooler and DaMarcus Mitchell who spent most of their time with the 10-time Pro Bowler and three-time Super Bowl champ. In the past the likes of Cody Davis, Brandon King, Nate Ebner and countless other special teams stalwarts spent the bulk of their summers under Slater's watchful eye.
"That's definitely evolved," Slater said of his 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."
It's a role that Slater absolutely relishes, and one that above all else is responsible for him sticking around so long.
"Obviously I'm going to do whatever he thinks is best for me and the team but that was really his idea and it's given me a chance to hone my craft and preserve my body, only doing the things that realistically I'm going to be doing in the games I think has been great. 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's really provided me a platform to hone my skills and bring other guys along as well.
"I think it's opened the door for other guys to carve that role out for themselves and hopefully excel in the kicking game. Coach has vision beyond what a lot of coaches have and he's willing to take a little more risk than I think a lot of other coaches would and I think it's paid off."
Slater mentioned earlier that he felt there were things left unfinished, and although his return was based mostly on non-football reasons it wasn't entirely based on culture and leadership. The Patriots final game of 2022 did not sit well with the proud man who's been leading the special teams for a decade and a half.
Buffalo notched a pair of kickoff returns for touchdowns in the finale that helped punch the Patriots ticket out of the playoffs, and Slater was on the field for both.
"I did take it hard," Slater began. "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 [Pro Football Hall of Famer Jackie Slater] 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.
"As much as I didn't want that to be the last chapter to my story, I had to accept that it possibly was going to be. That would have been a hard pill to swallow so I'm glad that it's not and I'm hopeful that I can end things on my own terms. That's certainly my prayer so we'll see how it goes."
If 2023 is anything like the previous 15 seasons, Slater will make sure it goes quite well.