Entering his 14th season with the New England Patriots, Matthew Slater played with plenty of Patriots greats, but none can quite compare to Julian Edelman. Teammates since Edelman entered the league one year after Slater, the duo won three championships together and formed a bond that extended off of the field.
"First of all, I think you guys all know covering Julian and I over the last 12 years or so, how much I love him as a brother, as a friend, what he means to my family," said Slater after the opening practice of minicamp on Monday. "I'm so proud of him in everything that he's accomplished in his great career here. I think he's one of the all-time great Patriots. He means the world to me and his friendship is something that I value above all things. I hope that Patriots Nation continues to celebrate him and look back on his career with fondness and gratitude because he gave us a lot of great memories in a Patriots uniform."
It's hard not to miss seeing no. 11 on the practice field over the last few weeks of OTAs, with his tattered yellow Kent State undershirt sticking out from his jersey as he warmed up hidden among the offensive lineman.
"He was so unique, his DNA was one of one," said Slater. "The toughness, the intensity, the ability to compete at a high level when the game was on the line... I mean, I've never seen anything like it."
Even with veteran receiver additions of Kendrick Bourne and Nelson Agholor, Edelman's absence will be felt both off and off the field. But the team has seen big-name and even legendary players depart before, it's just another opportunity for new players to step up.
"This organization has had players that have come through here, starting with Tom [Brady] and others, that you just don't replace and you don't try to be that guy, you've just got to be yourself," said Slater. "We need guys to be tough, we need guys to be accountable. When the time is right we need guys to be vocal and try to encourage their team needs to bring their game to another level. They've got to do it in their way. They can't try to do it like Julian did because there's only one Julian."
With a growing core of young players and a collection of free-agent additions, there's a decided feeling of newness around the 2021 Patriots.
"I'm excited to see who steps up, how guys lead," said Slater. "I think young guys need to start taking ownership of this football team because the old guard only has so much time left here. I look forward to seeing that next wave, that next generation of leaders and men who are really going to try to take ownership of this team."