Slater truly a 'special' captain

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Slater truly a 'special' captain

By A. Sherrod Blakely
CSNNE.com Celtics Insider
Follow @sherrodbcsn

FOXBORO As Matt Slater stood in front of his locker on Thursday, surrounded by a bevy of microphones, digital tape recorders and notebooks filled with indiscernible scribbling (some know it better as chick scratch), he spoke with an even-keeled tone that in many ways, said more about the man than the subject matter.

Slater had some of the biggest plays in the preseason for the Patriots, both as a receiver and as a special teams player.

But even he acknowledged that as the New England Patriots went about getting their roster down to the 53-man mandate, he wasn't sure if he would be kept around.

Slater, a fifth-round pick of the Patriots in 2008, has been around here long enough to know that things can change quickly.

Can. They. Ever.

One minute, he was wondering if the next shoe to fall was going to be the Pats kicking him to the curb.

The next?

He's a team captain.

Slater was among the six players selected as team captains for the 2011 season.

He joins quarterback Tom Brady, offensive lineman Logan Mankins, linebacker Jerod Mayo, cornerback Devin McCourty and defensive lineman Vince Wilfork as team captains for the 2011-2012 season.

"It's kind of a weird shift to go from that to now, being a captain," Slater admitted. "But I'm just grateful for the opportunity, and just really appreciative that my teammates think of me that way."

When you look at Slater's background, being a special teams standout seems an ideal role for him.

At UCLA, he played on both sides of the ball.

However, it was his special teams play that really stood out.

As a senior, he had a 29.0-yard return average on kicks, which included three touchdowns. His kickoff return average of 29.0 per game as a senior in 2007 was tops in the Pac-10, and ranked 12th nationally. He finished that year with 986 kickoff return yards, which was a UCLA single-season record. In addition to his return work, Slater also recorded 25 tackles as a safety and special teams player.

So when it came time to think about what his role would be at the next level, it was a no-brainer.

"I came into the league knowing that (special teams play) was something that I was going to have to do, the way my college career went, back and fourth between positions.," he said. "I knew if I were to have a chance at accomplishing my dream of playing in the National Football League, then special teams was going to be a vehicle for that. I knew coming in, I would have to do a little bit of the dirty work. I didn't know what all that would entail. I love doing that, I really do."

While his special teams play has certainly stood out, Slater opened some eyes during the preseason with his work at wide receiver.

In the four preseason games, Slater had 5 catches for 190 yards, which, if you do the math - I'll save you the time - works out to a 38-yards-per-grab average.

It's not totally out of the question to see No. 18 lined up at wide receiver at times this season, but Slater said he has no plans to push for more time with the offense.

"It's important to winning football games," Slater said of special-teams play. "It's three phases of the game. We've seen that over the years, special teams can win games. There's no shame in getting your hands dirty, going out there and battling. We need role players. Everybody can't be a superstar. Everybody needs to be a star in their role, so I've tried to embrace my role and be a star in it. I'm just trying to get better every day."

And now as a team captain, he's charged with doing more to help those younger players around him improve their game as well.

It is a job that Slater doesn't take lightly; a job that in many ways he had been groomed for by his father, Hall of Fame offensive lineman Jackie Slater.

After the Patriot players voted on the new captains and head coach Bill Belichick told them the results following Wednesday's practice, Matt Slater said the first person he called was his father.

"I know he was a captain during his career," said Matt Slater. "I know he always encouraged me to be a leader, a man that stands out, a man of character. It just means a lot that the guys think that way of me."

A. Sherrod Blakely can be reached at sblakely@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Sherrod on Twitter at http:twitter.comsherrodbcsn.

Film review: Burkhead provides Patriots combination of power, quickness

Film review: Burkhead provides Patriots combination of power, quickness

Rex Burkhead knew he was staring at a rare opportunity.

Going into Cincinnati's 2016 season finale, the 5-foot-10, 210-pound back was averaging just three carries per game. But with both Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard injured, the fourth-year player out of Nebraska understood he had a chance to put something on tape that would help him land a job in the offseason. 

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"Can't lie," Burkhead told his college teammate Adam Carriker. "Going into free agency, I knew that game was huge. It was a good opportunity for me to show what I could do. I guess it kind of helped me out."

It certainly didn't hurt. 

Burkhead ran 27 times for 119 yards and two scores against the Ravens, showing off an intriguing blend of toughness and elusiveness in the process. 

Burkead was already an accomplished special-teamer -- he led the Bengals in special-teams tackles last season -- but his performance against the NFL's fifth-ranked rushing defense made it clear that he could be leaned upon for more than just a few carries every week.

The Patriots must have taken notice. 

They signed Burkhead earlier this month to a one-year deal that will pay him $1.8 million in base salary and carry what some considered a relatively surprising maximum value of $3.15 million. That's more than the $1 million LeGarrette Blount was offered on his one-year deal last year, and it's enough to make Burkhead the highest-paid running back on the roster. 

What did the Patriots see from Burkhead that made him worth that kind of money? Let's take a closer look at his film -- particularly what he did in Week 17 last season -- to get a sense of what he might be able to do in New England. 

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The Patriots have long had a "big back" on their roster. Most recently, that's been Blount, who has been complemented by sub back James White and all-purpose runner Dion Lewis. 

Before Blount it was Stevan Ridley. Before Ridley, it was BenJarvus Green-Ellis. You can go all the way back to Corey Dillon and Antowain Smith. Belichick likes runners who can get what's blocked, protect the football, then create their own yards in the secondary by punishing defensive backs.

Burkhead doesn't quite tip the scales as those players listed above -- though he comes close to Green-Ellis (5-11, 215) -- yet he's currently the biggest back on the Patriots roster, and he seems to run with a bruiser's mentality. 

On his very first carry against the Ravens, when he got through the line of scrimmage and into the secondary, he saw that safety Matt Elam had him lined up. Instead of trying to spin away from Elam or hurdle him, Burkhead lowered his shoulder and became the aggressor. 

Elam, who was thought to be one of the biggest hitters to enter the league four years ago, had to give himself a moment before popping back up to his feet after the collision. 

Statement made. 

Burkhead's strength, it seems, is his strength. Just ask Eric Weddle and the rest of the Ravens how he turned this play into a nine-yard gain to help the Bengals bleed the clock late in the fourth quarter. 



Burkhead consistently fought through first contact and fell forward to pick up maximum yardage snap after snap versus Baltimore's stingy run defense. On his first touchdown of the game, he was tripped up near the line of scrimmage but showed good balance by stumbling into the end zone from five yards away. 

Perhaps one of the most impressive aspects of Burkhead's performance against the Ravens was his ability to keep the Bengals out of negative plays. On multiple occasions, he was hit at the line of scrimmage or behind it and consistently made his way back to the line or beyond it. 

Early in the fourth quarter, he was hit for what looked like it would be a three or four-yard loss yet somehow he was able to twist and dive back for no gain. Midway through the second, he was hit at the line and turned it into a four-yard pickup. 



One of the reasons Lewis has been so valuable to the Patriots when healthy the last two seasons is that when things break down up front, and when it looks like Tom Brady is about to be looking at second-and-11, he cuts and knifes forward for a yard or two or more. 

Those aren't big plays in the box score, but they're critical when it comes to extending drives. It seems like Burkhead has the ability to submit the same kinds of small-but-important gains with a hard-charging style all his own.

VISION, QUICKNESS TO FIND RUNNING ROOM
For someone who seems to enjoy imposing his will on would-be tacklers, Burkhead has a good amount of wiggle to his game. His vision and lateral quickness helped him make Ravens defenders look silly at times. 

As opposed to burrowing into a pile of bodies at the line of scrimmage early in the third quarter, his jump cut to the right helped him find space in the open field for an eye-opening eight-yard run. 



On the very next down, he was stopped a yard behind the line of scrimmage but was able to pick up three thanks to another jump cut that allowed him to stretch the run out wide.

In the fourth, Burkhead showed good patience by stalling behind the block of receiver Brandon LaFell, picking a path, and running decisively once he did. 



Burkhead may not be Lewis when it comes to his elusiveness, but he has the ability to mix in some off-speed stuff in between snaps spent trying to bowl over tacklers. 

Asked by Carriker if he preferred powering through defenders or bouncing around them, Burkhead said he'd actually go with the latter. 

"I think making a guy miss just because I feel like they don't expect that from me a lot of times," Burkhead explained. "But growing up I always took good pride in that. Just my quickness, my ability to make my guy miss."

MR. VERSATILITY
Part of what makes Burkhead's signing so interesting is that he doesn't fit tightly into the definition of either "big back" or "sub back." He seems somewhat like a larger version of Lewis -- an all-purpose runner who he can be used in a variety of packages and deployed in a variety of positions.

Burkhead has run out of the I-formation and the shotgun. He's caught the ball out of the backfield and lined up as a receiver, where he spent most of Cinci's 2014 Divisional Round game against the Colts. He caught three passes that day for 34 yards and ran a reverse for a gain of 23. 

"He has tremendous short-area quickness," then-Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson said during training camp two years ago. "His 10-yard times were off the charts; his three-cone was off the charts. He's very talented [as a receiver]."

However Burkhead is used, he'll very likely continue to see time as a contributor in the kicking game. Not only does he have a wealth of experience when it comes to covering kicks, but he's served as a kick-returner in the past as well. 

So to recap: Running back...receiver...special-teamer.

Sure sounds like someone Belichick would be willing to invest in.

Ohio State LB on Belichick: 'When you first meet him, you're scared'

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Ohio State LB on Belichick: 'When you first meet him, you're scared'

Even for some of the nation's top athletes, confident 20-somethings with the rest of their (perhaps very lucrative) lives ahead of them, there's a feeling you just can't shake when Bill Belichick walks into the room. 

"When you first meet him, you're scared," said Ohio State linebacker Raekwon McMillan, per WBZ. "He's quizzing you. It's like a little test. But after you get done with the test, the quiz or whatever, drawing up the defense, it's pretty cool. They're real down to earth people. Really cool."

Belichick was spotted at Ohio State's pro day getting a closer look at McMillan and his teammates on Thursday. He then headed off to Ann Arbor, Michigan for the Wolverines showcase Friday.

During various scouting trips across the country, the Patriots appear to be showing significant interest in the incoming class of linebackers. Belichick spent some extra time with Vanderbilt's Zach Cunningham -- who's projected to be a first-rounder -- at his pro day. The team reportedly scheduled a meeting with a speedy linebacker from Cincinnati. And Matt Patricia caught up with Notre Dame linebacker James Onwualu once his workouts finished up on Thursday. 

As for McMillan, the 6-2, 240-pounder was a second-team All-American and a first-team All-Big Ten choice. He's instinctive, but there's some question as to whether or not he has the strength to hold up inside at the next level.