By A. Sherrod Blakely
CSNNE.com Celtics Insider
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.
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."