FOXBOROUGH — A couple days after Justin Bethel signed with the Patriots in October he sat down at a table with special teams captain Matthew Slater to talk about what Bethel could bring to those units and what would be expected of him. Before they got too far into it, though, both players looked at each other, still a little tickled they’d wound up as coworkers.
“I was like, ‘What were the chances,’ ” Bethel said.
For Bethel’s six years as an Arizona Cardinal from 2012-17, he looked at Slater as the gold standard for a special teams ace, especially as a fellow gunner. As Bethel grew into a top-end special teams player himself, he saw himself as the NFC counterpart to Slater in the AFC. Their mutual admiration continued when Bethel hopped from the Falcons to the Ravens and has only grown since they’ve begun playing together this year.
Both players, multi-time Pro Bowlers who play almost exclusively on special teams, represent the Patriots’ commitment to stocking their roster with fourth-down playmakers. But they came to the Patriots by different roads, Slater coming through the draft and developing in New England and Bethel coming as an opportunistic aquisition and a ready-made contributor. Neither path is particularly remarkable on its own, but it’s notable that the Patriots regularly go down both.
“You know, when your job isn’t offense or defense, mainly, it can sometimes kind of just be like that’s what they’re supposed to do, go out there and play special teams and do what you’re asked of and make the plays that come to you,” Bethel said. “But when you get to play for teams that really put an emphasis on special teams players and how important it is, it’s nice because it really makes what you do feel very important.”
Three of the 11 longest-tenured Patriots draft picks primarily play special teams. Slater, taken in the fifth round in 2008, has been on the team longer than anyone other than Tom Brady. Nate Ebner has been around since 2012, when he was drafted in the sixth round, and long snapper Joe Cardona’s Patriots tenure dates to 2015 when he was taken in the fifth round. Brandon Bolden re-started as a Patriot in 2019 after a year in Miami, but was signed as an undrafted free agent out of college in 2012, so his removal from the group of old-timers is only on a technicality.
Others, such as Jonathan Jones, who the Patriots signed as an undrafted free agent in 2016, haven’t been around quite as long but could eventually fit into the same category. Jones has grown into an excellent cornerback and contributor on defense, but he earned his roster spot through special teams.
These are born-and-bred Patriots players. New England scouts and coaches identify their special teams skills and work to get the most out of them. They come up understanding the system and learning from the Slaters and Ebners and Boldens every day. They are not, though, the only special teamers on the roster.
The Patriots have also made it a point to pounce when an already-excellent specialist becomes available. They signed Bethel to a two-year deal right after the Ravens cut him for roster space. Terrence Brooks, who has proven himself able as both a safety and special teams player, was snatched up quickly in free agency. One could imagine a team that already devotes more draft capital than most to special teams, and feels like it has good special teams coaches, feeling like the cupboard is already stocked, but the Patriots don’t seem to feel that way.
Slater has often said that philosophy makes him feel valued, and Bethel said the same. Slater also said there’s an added pressure that comes with the understanding that the Patriots put more into special teams than most. It’s assumed they’ll get more out in return.
So, when they get a blocked punt but also allow a blocked kick, as the New England special teams did against the Chiefs last Sunday, there’s a sense of guilt that comes with knowing that the team has done some unorthodox things designed to prevent that kind of mixed bag.
“You have guys on this team that are here strictly because of special teams, myself included, so we feel like we have a responsibility to go out and try to leave a mark on the game,” Slater said.