Five Thoughts On Patriots’ First Two Signings Of 2023 Offseason

Matthew Slater and Conor McDermott are sticking around


Feb 20, 2023

We’re still close to a month out from the March 15 start of the new NFL league year, but the New England Patriots already have begun locking up some of their internal free agents.

Last Friday, the team announced special teams captain Matthew Slater was delaying retirement and returning for a 16th NFL season. He’ll be back on a reported one-year, $2.7 million contract.

On Saturday, The Boston Globe’s Jim McBride reported the Patriots agreed to terms on a new deal for offensive tackle Conor McDermott, kicking off the reconstruction of their weakest position group.

As the official opening of free agency and the trade market draws closer, here are five thoughts on what these early moves mean for the 2023 Patriots:

1. Retaining Slater is a major coup from a leadership perspective.

The 37-year-old (38 in September) has been a Patriots captain for the past 12 seasons and is universally respected by the locker room and coaching staff. Just six other members of their most recent Super Bowl team (2018) currently are under contract for the upcoming season, and there’s real value in having players with championship experience.

But leadership and veteran savvy aren’t all Slater offers. He’s lost a step athletically in his advanced age, but he still managed to pile up 13 special teams tackles this season, second-most on the team behind Brenden Schooler’s 14 and the most Slater has tallied in any season since 2015. That’s despite him getting, in Bill Belichick’s words, “double-teamed on virtually every coverage play, with very few exceptions.”

Keeping the Slater-Schooler gunner tandem will be a big help for whoever the Patriots’ punter is in 2023.

2. A little-known roster management wrinkle makes Slater’s contract especially team-friendly. Since his deal reportedly was designated as a “four-year qualifying contract,” it’ll carry a salary cap hit of just $1.3 million.

Slater qualifies for that provision because he’s been on the Patriots’ roster for at least four consecutive, uninterrupted seasons. Here are the particulars, per’s free agent glossary:

Teams can sign a maximum of two eligible players to this type of salary benefit. A qualifying contract under this benefit is a one-year deal with a base salary of up to $1.35 million more (set to increase in 2024) than the minimum base salary for said player. However, if a team does sign two players to a qualifying contract, it can only give a combined $1.35 million in additional base salary between the two deals. Under such agreements, only the applicable minimum base salary (not the $1.35 million benefit) is charged against the salary cap.

So, bringing Slater back will cost the Patriots next to nothing cap-wise.

3. We still don’t know whether New England’s other longtime captain will follow Slater’s lead. Safety Devin McCourty has yet to disclose whether he plans to retire or return for a 14th season.

McCourty, who acknowledged that the Patriots’ Week 18 loss in Buffalo might have been his final game, said after the season that he was going to take “a lot of time” before making his final decision. So, Patriots fans shouldn’t expect an imminent announcement.

With his 36th birthday coming up in August, McCourty is past his prime but remains an effective, reliable and extremely important player for New England’s defense. He runs the show as the primary defensive communicator, grabbed four interceptions this season and hasn’t missed a game since 2015. Never mind games — he hardly ever misses a snap. He played 97% of them this season, highest among Patriots defenders by a massive margin. Linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley ranked second at 80%.

Importantly, the Patriots don’t have an obvious internal replacement for McCourty, with Kyle Dugger, Adrian Phillips and impending free agent Jabrill Peppers all better suited for versatile strong safety roles and Joshuah Bledsoe hardly seeing the field in his first two NFL seasons. Cornerbacks Jalen Mills and Jonathan Jones (another free-agent-to-be) have some safety experience, but neither has ever played full-time in the spot McCourty mans.

Getting McCourty to sign on for one more season would solve a big potential problem for New England’s defense.

4. The Patriots probably don’t want to open the 2023 season with McDermott as one of their starting tackles, but re-signing him was a smart move.

He signed off the New York Jets’ practice squad just before Thanksgiving, was inserted into the starting lineup nine days later and went on to play nearly every offensive snap at right tackle over the final six games, bringing a measure of stability to an O-line that was a mess all season.

McDermott was far from flawless in those six starts, but he held his own under less-than-ideal circumstances. He didn’t allow a sack and finished the season as New England’s highest-graded run blocker by Pro Football Focus.

“Thank God we have him,” Belichick, who gave McDermott the nod over a healthy Yodny Cajuste, said in late December. “He’s done a good job. He’s been dependable and tough. He’s been out there, been durable.”

The Patriots still should be looking to add at least one starting-caliber tackle in free agency, plus some youth at the position in the 2023 NFL Draft. But McDermott’s play down the stretch rightfully earned him a chance to compete for a spot in training camp.

5. McDermott and new Patriots offensive line coach Adrian Klemm go way back.

Klemm was McDermott’s position coach for all five of the lineman’s seasons at UCLA. McDermott started the final two of those seasons before the Patriots drafted him in the sixth round in 2017.

Offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien was the marquee hire for New England’s coaching staff, but Klemm will be an important figure, as well. The Patriots badly need more consistent O-line play after that unit struggled under Matt Patricia’s purview this past season.

Thumbnail photo via Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports Images
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