BOSTON (AP) — Strong special teams play has been one of the staples of the Patriots under Bill Belichick.
Few players know that more than longtime special teams captain Matt Slater, one of the most recognized leaders in New England’s locker room.
The unit has already undergone big changes this offseason following the departures of former coordinator Joe Judge, kicker Stephen Gostkowski and Nate Ebner.
It’s left the 34-year-old Slater, who recently agreed to a two-year deal, as the team’s most-tenured player following the exits of Tom Brady and Gostkowski.
“We’re going to have to find a new identity for ourselves,” Slater said Monday. “But I think part of that identity is gonna be built upon things that we've always stood for and we'll continue to stand for as long as this organization is led by the people that it's led by.”
Finding replacements for Gostkowski and Ebner won't be easy.
Gostkowski spent his entire 14-year career in New England, won three Super Bowl rings and passed Adam Vinatieri as the Patriots’ leading scorer before being released last week.
Ebner, also a three-time champ with the Patriots, left in free agency and signed with the Giants where he will be reunited with Judge.
Slater said losing Ebner is huge for him personally, after working more closely with Ebner than any other player over the past eight seasons.
"His value to what we did in the kicking game, it just is off the charts,” Slater said “It would never be something that gets talked about because there's so many intricacies within the kicking game that get overlooked. But the things he has done for this football team on and off the field the last eight years have been tremendous.”
Nick Folk finished the season as the Patriots kicker after Gostkowski went on injured reserve in October and had hip surgery. But he is a free agent and at age 35 was never meant to be a long-term replacement.
The Patriots have also added players with special teams experience in recent weeks, including Adrian Phillips and Cody Davis.
And Slater said Cam Achord, who has spent the past two seasons as a special teams assistant, is someone he is confident is ready to step into Judge’s shoes as coordinator.
The Patriots haven't announced who will replace Judge, but Belichick has often chosen to promote coaches within the organization to coordinator posts.
“We’re really comfortable with his coaching style and we know how he likes to call the game,” Slater said of Achord. “He's gonna have the same expectations of us that have always been had around here. And that's pride yourself on working hard, pride yourself on doing your job the right way, pride yourself on being a selfless team player, and don't expect anything to be handed to you."
More AP NFL: https://apnews.com/NFL and https://twitter.com/AP_NFL