Few would have been surprised if Matthew Slater retired this offseason.
The New England Patriots' long-time special teams ace has already won three Super Bowls and earned 10 Pro Bowl nods over 15 NFL seasons, so why return at age 37 to a squad that missed the postseason in 2022 and has a shaky outlook for 2023?
Slater recently offered some insight into his decision to return to the Patriots for the 2023 season -- and it appears the opportunity to provide locker room leadership played a big role.
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"I do believe that my role at this point is not just about covering kicks, blocking for returners," Slater told Patriots.com's Paul Perillo. "I think it's about fostering culture, building relationships and pouring into young men. You can do that in other capacities but the way you do that as a player is very different. The way you're able to connect with guys is very different."
That's a notable answer from Slater, especially considering the state of the Patriots in the post-Tom Brady era. Slater is the longest-tenured Patriot by a wide margin, and if Devin McCourty doesn't return in 2023, Slater will join center David Andrews and defensive tackle Lawrence Guy as the only under-contract players who have been in New England longer than five seasons. (Cornerback Jonathan Jones has been with the Patriots for six seasons but is a pending free agent.)
So, perhaps Slater saw a leadership void in Foxboro and felt compelled to fill it, rather than leave the Patriots high and dry entering a crucial year for both quarterback Mac Jones and the franchise as a whole.
Slater even used the word "unfinished" -- not in relation to New England missing the playoffs last season, but in regard to maintaining a strong locker room culture.
"That's something I still have a lot of passion for and that's something I certainly wasn't ready to walk away from," Slater said. "That factored in huge into the decision because I feel like there are certain things you can do as a player that you can't do as an administrator or as a staff member. Things I felt like were unfinished in terms of relationships and culture so that definitely factored in."
It's certainly good news for the Patriots that Slater decided to run it back in 2023. And if McCourty joins him in putting off retirement for an extra year, they could help bridge the gap between the Brady-era group that won three Super Bowls in five years and the group of current players, many of whom haven't even won a playoff game.