FOXBOROUGH — Matthew Slater is passionate.
That fact was driven home again Wednesday when the Patriots’ perennial special teams captain was asked about the NFL’s new rule that allows teams to start at the 25-yard line on any kickoff that results in a fair catch or touchback.
The NFL believes the modification will result in fewer injuries, but Slater, a 10-time Pro Bowl selection for his coverage skills, isn’t buying it.
“Obviously, when you ask me that, there’s going to be a reaction that I have that is unique from most players in this league. I do have a bias about this, right? So, we’ll get that out there,” Slater said after Wednesday’s practice. “It’s my understanding that the powers that be think that this is going to improve player safety and health, and I’m just not convinced that our league is always going to do what’s in the best interest of our players. I understand that we want to reduce head injuries and things of that nature, but we don’t always act as if player health and safety is paramount.”
Slater then rattled off several examples of why he believes this is true, including Thursday night games, healthcare for players who have been retired for more than five years, the difficulty some former players go through to access disability benefits, and the use of artificial turf over natural grass.
“I look at this game, it’s been played for over a hundred years, and it’s clear to me that they’re making an effort to eradicate [the kickoff] play,” Slater said. “They said they’re making the play safer, but the reality is they haven’t done a single thing to make the play safer. They haven’t changed the rules. They haven’t changed the techniques. There are still going to be collisions that occur if the ball’s not fair caught.”
Slater said that more than “99 percent of the time,” injuries do not occur on kickoffs. “Those are the facts,” he said. “Those are the stats.”
“What I do believe is we want to portray ourselves a certain way to the public, to you [in the media], that says, ‘We care about the players,’ ” Slater added. “But I can give you a long list of examples — and I’ve been around this game for almost 40 years — I can give you a long list of examples where the league and the powers that be do not act in the best interest of the players. Why is it that so many of my dad’s [Hall of Fame offensive tackle Jackie Slater] teammates are in bad shape and looking to the league to help them? If we really cared about player safety and health, let’s look at it on a grand scale. Let’s not take away a play that really doesn’t impact the bottom line for the league. We’re not taking Patrick Mahomes off the field. We’re not taking those guys off the field.”
What’s going on?
Some observations from the first OTA session open to the media.
▪ With “Real As It Gets” by Lil Baby blaring (an appropriate choice given that the 11-on-11 drill is as real as it gets to actual football during these nonpadded, noncontact sessions), Mac Jones delivered an early 4-for-4 performance with catches by Mike Gesicki, Tyquan Thornton (two), and Pierre Strong in his first snaps.
▪ Rookie quarterback Malik Cunningham was not given the traditional red jersey handed out to the slingers, though he was easy to spot. He made the play of the day, going airborne to snag a midrange crosser from Trace McSorley. Cunningham did take some snaps and make some throws with the scout team at the end of practice.
▪ OTAs are voluntary, and the following players were not spotted: receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, guards Mike Onwenu and Chasen Hines, tackle Trent Brown, cornerbacks Christian Gonzalez and Isaiah Bolden, linebacker Matthew Judon, defensive linemen Christian Barmore, Davon Godchaux, and Lawrence Guy, kicker Nick Folk, and long snapper Joe Cardona.
▪ Those who spent at least part of practice on the conditioning field included special teamer Cody Davis, tight end Scotty Washington, jack-of-all-trades Marques Jones, running back Rhamondre Stevenson, and rookie receiver Kayshon Boutte. Rookie linebacker Marte Mapu (pectoral) wore a red noncontact jersey but saw plenty of snaps.
▪ Cornerbacks Jack Jones and Brad Hawkins, and hybrid defensive back Jalen Mills had interceptions.
▪ Linebacker Ronnie Perkins and rookie defensive end Keion White were both in blue No. 51 jerseys, which will make for a very confusing training camp situation.
▪ Among those spotted: Recently retired safety Devin McCourty; retired running backs coach Ivan Fears; and Bruins coach Jim Montgomery.