FOXBOROUGH — When the Patriots take the field this season, there will be a new look on defense with offseason acquisitions such as cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner.
There will be a new wrinkle in the offense, too, with former Panthers receiver Brandon LaFell in the mix.
But there will also be continuity on special teams in the presence of the Patriots’ cerebral captain, Matthew Slater.
Slater has been the special teams captain for three seasons under positional coach Scott O’Brien, and the Patriots’ efficiency on special teams is an integral part of their game plan.
“I think there’s so many facets of the game that I can improve upon, we can improve upon,” Slater said Tuesday as he met with reporters outside Gillette Stadium.
“Scotty is a very demanding coach, and to be able to know what he expects from us and how we need to get better is very helpful. To have that continuity, I don’t want to say I think the same as Scotty, but I’d like to say I have a pretty good understanding of him and so do the other guys and it goes a long way when it comes to crunch time during the season.”
Despite the cohesiveness of the system, Slater knows there is always more work to be done.
“I think we can improve in all the big four units,” Slater said. “We left a lot of plays out there even though we had a successful season as a group. There’s a lot of areas we can improve on, a lot of areas I can improve upon, and we’re just looking to get better.”
One of the changes on special teams will be on kick returns. The Patriots did not re-sign LeGarrette Blount, who returned 17 kickoffs and averaged 29.1 yards per return. In the regular-season finale, a 34-20 win over Buffalo, Blount rumbled for two huge returns of 83 and 62 yards. But Slater is confident the team will find the right replacement.
“That’s not up to me,” Slater said. “But there are a lot of guys more than capable of getting the job done and we’ll just see how it unfolds.”
Once last season ended, Slater made sure to get plenty of rest before beginning his offseason training. Slater also spent time mentally preparing for the season, mostly by watching film and talking to players around the league.
Slater is a valuable asset because of his versatility and speed on special teams, but his astute knowledge of the game helps the unit to make few mistakes — a skill he attributed to O’Brien.
“I definitely think the cerebral part of the game, really thinking and having a plan of attack, and understand how you’re being attacked and blocked,” Slater said when asked what O’Brien has taught him.
“He’s really opened my mind to just being more than a fast guy and running down there and throwing my body around. It’s a thinking-man’s game, believe it or not, and he’s really helped me in that area.”
Though the Patriots have had a busy offseason, Slater said he hasn’t been paying much attention to personnel changes, particularly the Revis signing.
“I don’t really follow a whole lot of football in the offseason,” Slater said. “I heard it and [thought] that would be great if he came.”
Even with the key additions to the secondary, Slater said he’s keeping his expectations for the season tempered.
“There’s a lot to be excited about — some extremely talented players we’ve added to the roster as well as some extremely talented players we’ve had on the roster,” he said. “But that’s all on paper. It really doesn’t mean anything right now.”
Slater said he is exited to get acquainted with his new teammates and take the field with them. In January, Slater got to know Revis during the Pro Bowl in Hawaii while playing together for Team Sanders.
“He does everything the right way, plays the game the right way, and you respect that about a guy no matter who he plays for,” Slater said.
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The Patriots’ first workout of the offseason on Monday was voluntary, but a video on the team’s website confirms that most, if not all, key players were back working at Gillette Stadium.
Revis, quarterback Tom Brady, and the entire receiving corps — outside of injured Aaron Dobson — were among the dozens of players present as the Patriots opened Phase 1 of the nine-week offseason program. Players can only work with the training and medical staff for the first two weeks. On-field positional drills without pads can take place in Weeks 3-5, and full-team 11-on-11 work can occur over the last four weeks of the offseason, culminating in a three-day minicamp in June.
It was unclear if Browner was in attendance, but he was likely involved, given his $250,000 workout bonus. He is one of several Patriots getting a bonus to attend the voluntary offseason program. Three others are also getting $250,000 (Rob Gronkowski, Logan Mankins, and Jerod Mayo). Vince Wilfork gets $200,000, and four players get $100,000 (Slater, Rob Ninkovich, Shane Vereen, and Stephen Gostkowski). In most cases, players must participate in 80-90 percent of workouts to receive their bonuses.
Those without workout bonuses, like Revis, get paid $175 per session. Per NFL rules, the Patriots can hold four practices per week, and none on the weekend.