NFL coaches often say that special teams play amounts to one-third of a football game. In other words, the units, which are on the field during kicking plays, have a roughly 33 percent-impact on the game’s outcome.
While some scoff at this assessment, the New England Patriots most emphatically do not.
Patriots special teams coach, Joe Judge routinely fields a unit that embodies that sentiment. They are well-coached and well-valued by head coach Bill Belichick and the entire organization. As a result, they are consistently among the NFL’s elite special teams squads year-after-year.
Next month, nine Patriots players (who play considerable snaps in the kicking game) are set to hit free agency. That number includes offensive stars such as wide receiver Danny Amendola and running back Dion Lewis. However, it also includes two of the NFL’s elite special teamers: Matthew Slater and Nate Ebner.
It can be argued that they might be the Patriots special teams version of Batman and Robin.
Let’s examine the ‘dynamic’ abilities of this duo…
‘Oh Captain, My Captain’
Special teams captain, Matthew Slater (listed on the Patriots depth chart as a wide receiver) is among the most respected players in the NFL for his prowess on special teams. Without question, he is the best special teams player of his era. In fact, many players, coaches, and analysts have expressed that he should receive legitimate consideration for the Pro Football Hall of Fame when his playing days have come to an end.
Slater has served as the Patriots’ special teams captain since 2011. He played in nine regular-season games, recording seven special teams tackles. He also played in all three playoff games (including Super Bowl LII), adding two additional tackles.
Although Slater’s accomplishments do not often find themselves in the highlight reel, he did have several noteworthy moments in 2017. In the team’s Week 17 win over New York Jets, Slater downed two punts inside the 5-yard line during the fourth quarter. He also beat a double- team to help chase punt returner Travis Benjamin back into his own end zone against the Los Angeles Chargers in Week 8. The play resulted in a safety that the Chargers would certainly like to have back. The Patriots won both contests.
Lastly, despite missing nearly half of the 2017 season with a hamstring injury, Slater was still deservedly voted to the Pro Bowl. It was his seventh consecutive selection, tying him with former Buffalo Bills’ receiver Steve Tasker for the most ever by a special teamer.
A Secret Identity?
Patriots safety Nate Ebner may be the man that defines the term ‘unsung hero.’ He was not only a second-team All-Pro in 2016 (Slater beat him by one vote), but was also an Olympian, playing on the national Rugby team.
While he may not be a nationwide household name, his skills on the gridiron make him a valuable member of the New England Patriots organization.
Like Slater, Ebner lost a significant portion of the 2017 season to injury. He sat out Weeks 1 and 2 with a shoulder injury before tearing his ACL on a successful fake punt during a win over the Miami Dolphins in Week 12. The injury landed him on season-ending injured reserve. He appeared in just nine regular-season games and missed the Patriots’ entire playoff run.
However, Ebner’s impact was still felt, despite his absence. In his nine on-field appearances, was more than productive.
He recorded eight special teams tackles in his limited action. At the time of his injury, he led the team in tackles. He has also served as the ‘upback’ on New England’s punt team since 2013 Coach Belichick has called “one of the toughest spots to play” and routinely sings Ebner’s praises whenever the opportunity presents itself.
Is this the End for the ‘Dynamic Duo?’
(In order for the previous subheading to reach its desired impact, you should read it in the voice of William Dozier, who is best remembered as the executive producer and narrator of the Batman television series.)
As the New England Patriots prepare for the 2018 season, its nation of fans is left to wonder whether its prolific pair of special teamers will be suiting up in Patriots blue?
To the relief of Pats Nation, the answer should be quite obvious.
The chances of both Matthew Slater and Nate Ebner coming back are pretty high.
In Slater’s case, it would be shocking to see him sign with any other team. Few in the NFL are as talented at punt and kick coverage as Slater. One can expect to see him back on a deal that is similar to the one-year, $1.8 million extension he signed before the 2016 season.
As for Ebner, he has been an excellent special teamer for Patriots. New England is a team that places a huge emphasis on the kicking game. He likely will not cost much to retain, especially after his injury. His last contract, signed before the 2016 season, was a two-year deal worth $2.4 million.
In the event that either (or both) of them decide to move on, remember that it is easier to replace players on special teams than it is on offense or defense. However, Slater and Ebner are two of the best in the league at what they do. Both have enjoyed their time in New England and figure to be more valuable here than any other team. As a result, call it ‘likely’ that the ‘dynamic duo’ will be back in the Patriots special teams plans this year.
Of course, we are all sure to find out. Therefore, tune in to the 2018 NFL Season, Pats Fans.
…Same Pats Time…Same Pats Channel.
–Mike D’Abate is a Managing Editor and National Columnist for Full Press Coverage Sports Media. He covers the New England Patriots and the AFC East. Follow him on Twitter @mdabateFPC.