FOXBOROUGH — Once upon a time, before he was the New England Patriots special teams captain and a seven-time Pro Bowler, Matthew Slater was an enigma.
The son of a Pro Football Hall of Famer, Slater never stood out as a wide receiver or safety at UCLA, but his blazing speed caught the eye of NFL scouts. Eventually Bill Belichick traded up to draft him in the fifth round of the 2008 NFL Draft, vowing to find a position for the All-Conference kickoff returner. Before long, Slater carved out his unique role, and the rest is history.
A decade later, could history repeat itself once more?
Keion Crossen has a lot in common with his veteran teammate. Like Slater, Crossen was an unheralded prospect coming out of college, but he earned a shot thanks to his unparalleled speed. The former FCS star at Western Carolina didn’t get an invite to the NFL Scouting Combine, but when he took part in nearby Wake Forest’s Pro Day, the numbers he posted — most notably his 4.32 40-yard dash — ranked among the best at his position nationwide.
Belichick took notice, drafting Crossen in the seventh round of the 2018 NFL Draft, and by season’s end the rookie established himself as a crucial piece on special teams, emerging as one of the team’s starting gunners on kickoff coverage and jammers on punt returns in the playoffs.
Now going into his second year, Crossen is battling for a roster spot amid a crowded field at cornerback. Yet Slater believes Crossen has the talent and mindset needed to carve out his own role on the team.
“I love that kid, he’s a great young man, I think he stands for a lot of the things that I’d want my son to stand for. His faith, his passion, his leadership have been tremendous,” Slater said. “Beyond that, what he brings to the football field is he has a unique skillset that you can’t coach, you can’t buy, and that’s speed. Playing in this league for a long time, I’ve seen a lot of fast guys, I haven’t seen many that are faster than him.”
Slater, who has taken Crossen under his wing through his first year in the league, specifically compared Crossen to better-known speedsters like Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Tyreek Hill — who the Patriots entrusted Crossen to cover during last season’s AFC Championship Game — saying he can keep up with any of them. That talent has long been one of Slater’s own calling cards, and teammates say the comparisons don’t end there.
“They walk the same line in life, they both can run, and they don’t really care about their role,” said receiver Phillip Dorsett. “They’re selfless and they just go out and play football.”
“They’re ying and yang,” said Jonathan Jones, who started opposite of Crossen as a jammer on punt returns in the Super Bowl. “Off the field you know they’re both great guys, and they kind of mirror each other. They both have that work ethic.”
Crossen has embraced the challenge of making an impact on special teams, and he said Slater has been a huge influence since his arrival last year.
“He’s like a big brother,” Crossen said. “Slater is just a great guy, obviously a veteran guy whose been here a long time and he knows how to have fun and as well as be great on the field.”
With Slater turning 34 in September, his run as one of the league’s most prolific special teams players is probably nearing its end. When that time eventually comes, Crossen ranks as a strong candidate to succeed Slater as one of the team’s lead gunners, and Slater hopes to see Crossen make the most of any opportunities that might come his way.
“I want to see him do better than me,” Slater said. “Any young man that you take in and try to mentor you want to see them excel and maybe go on to do bigger and better things, but he’s going to take it one day at a time just like all of us.”
Mac Cerullo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Mac on Twitter at @MacCerullo.