FOXBORO, Mass. — The New England Patriots are famous for employing more special teams-focused players than most NFL clubs. But most of those players have other positions, too.
Justin Bethel’s primary role for the Patriots is as one of the NFL’s premier punt gunners, but he also reps at cornerback (and pulled down an interception Thursday). Cody Davis runs with the safeties. Brandon King, when he was healthy and active, played linebacker.
Matthew Slater is different.
Since the spring of 2019, Slater has ignored his listed position group (wide receiver) and spent the entirety of each practice running through his own highly choreographed routine of special teams drills.
“It is a very unique situation that I’m in,” Slater said after Thursday’s training camp practice. “Sometimes you feel like, ‘Man, I wonder how my guys are doing over there in the receiver room’ or ‘I wonder how my guys are doing on the back end in the secondary.’ But there’s plenty of time for me to catch up with them. My focus is just on trying to get better and trying to work and again earn my way onto this football team.”
As a longtime team captain, unquestioned locker room leader and one of the greatest special teamers in NFL history, Slater is all but guaranteed a spot on New England’s 53-man roster each year. But the 34-year-old — who’s now the Patriots’ longest-tenured player with Tom Brady and Stephen Gostkowski gone — continues to look for ways to improve his game.
That’s where his solo practice routine comes in. Without the need to work on catching passes, running routes or covering receivers, Slater, who rarely plays on offense outside of victory-formation kneeldowns, can drill and perfect the minute details that separate passable special teams players from perennial Pro Bowlers like himself.
“It’s really amazing to think about how things have evolved for me as a player over the years,” said Slater, whom the Patriots drafted in the fifth round in 2008. “I think early on in my career, it was more about effort and just understanding schemes. It’s still about effort and understanding schemes, but I think now, (it’s also about) just refining techniques.
“And there’s so many little things that come into play, especially when you talk about, let’s say for example, a position like gunner, where a lot of times it’s going to be 2-on-1. You need as many tools in your toolbelt as you can possibly have to try to win those matchups. So I think we go back, we look at film, we see the areas that maybe I’ve struggled in and we try to go find answers for those problems. …
“We’ll create drills, and then (special teams coordinator) Cam (Achord) will have a (practice) script for me. ‘Hey, today this is what we’re going to work on.’ And depending on what the emphasis is in practice — if it’s the return game or if it’s coverage units — then we’ll go drill those things.”
The Patriots put Nate Ebner on a similar plan last season. But with Ebner following former Patriots special teams boss Joe Judge to the New York Giants, Slater now does much of his work in solitude, accompanied only by an assistant coach with occasional pop-ins by long snapper Joe Cardona.
“I think for me personally, that’s been very beneficial,” Slater said. “It’s no different than a receiver running cone drills and working the top of his routes. For me, those hand-to-hand techniques or finishing on the return or blocking schemes and techniques, that’s my game. So I’m really appreciative of our coaches being so detail-oriented and going out there with a plan and a purpose, not just kind of slapping it out there. I really feel good about the plan we have each and every day. It brings me a lot of enjoyment.”
Slater also studies and takes cues from other top-level special teamers, including Bethel, who joined the Patriots midway through last season, and Davis, who came aboard this past spring.
Anything he can do to find an edge.
“The saying goes, ‘You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.’ This old dog is still trying to learn new tricks,” said Slater, who earned his fifth first-team All-Pro selection in 2019. “I embrace that challenge. I think you should never get to a place where you feel like you have it all figured out. You should always be searching for more knowledge, more understanding of the game and trying to improve yourself.
“I think when that process stops — when you stop evolving in that way — then it’s probably time for you to stop playing. And I don’t think I’ve reached that point yet.”