FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Quick-hit thoughts and notes around the New England Patriots and NFL:
1. Patriots special-teams captain Matthew Slater wasn't taking anything for granted this offseason, as he hoped the club would pick up his $400,000 roster bonus to exercise the option on his contract for 2019.
So when the call came, he was relieved.
"I was really excited to hear from Bill [Belichick] that they wanted me part of the team moving forward. I'm so thankful that the Patriots saw fit to continue to make an investment in me as a player and as a leader for our team," Slater told ESPN.com. "I'm so glad I've been able to be here the entirety of my career; it really means a lot to me that I've been able to be in one place and be a part of such a great organization."
Part of the reason staying with one team has such meaning to Slater is that his father, Pro Football Hall of Famer Jackie Slater, spent his entire 20-year career with the Rams.
But unlike his dad, who entered the NFL as a third-round pick out of Jackson State, Slater's NFL staying power was a little less clear. The Patriots had selected him in the fifth round of the 2008 draft, with special teams in mind, so the idea that he would one day be entering his 12th season never crossed his mind.
Now, asked if 2019 might be his final season, he said: "I think I've always approached my career as every year could be my last year because of the nature of my position and the unique role I have on the team as a core special teams player. Obviously, at this stage of my career, my wife and I have to have a conversation as our family grows and our kids grow up, and as we evolve, decisions aren't just about what's best for me. It's about what's best for my wife and for my children. We're happy where we're at now, and we're just going to stay the course, thankful for the opportunity we have ahead of us and give it everything we got."
The 33-year-old Slater had capped off the 2018 season with a strong performance in Super Bowl LIII (a 13-3 win over the Rams), as his punt coverage was critical in a game that included more punts than many anticipated.
"The years prior to this past one were challenging for me personally, dealing with injuries and having to battle through that. A lot of questions swirl around when you're an older guy that gets hurt as to whether or not you can ever get yourself healthy again," he said. "So I'm just thankful the good Lord gave me health this year and was able to be out there every practice and every game with my teammates and show that I can still play this game at a pretty decent level, which I feel I can still do."
2. One leftover from the NFL's annual meeting in late March: The Patriots were hopeful that a couple of 2019 preseason requests to be paired with teams now led by former New England coaches would be granted by the NFL. This is commonplace across the league, especially when teams eye the possibility of conducting joint practices, which Belichick has generally viewed as a positive experience. Though Brian Flores' Miami Dolphins are too close to home in the AFC East, an ideal scenario for New England would be to work with Matt Patricia's Lions and Mike Vrabel's Titans in the 2019 preseason. This was the week last year when the NFL announced its preseason schedule, so that's something to keep on the radar in the coming days.
3. The Patriots' voluntary offseason program begins April 15, but some players have already been checking in at Gillette Stadium, a group that included linebacker Dont'a Hightower this past week. Hightower turned 29 in March, and his work last offseason provided an important foundation for him to play 15 regular-season games, and all three playoff contests, in 2018. That was an important goal for Hightower, who focused more on acupuncture and soft tissue after having his 2017 season cut short after five games with a torn pectoral muscle.
4. One rather large question mark that remains on the Patriots' roster: Is Stephen Gostkowski returning as the placekicker? It has been one of the big New England surprises that Gostkowski remains unsigned one month into free agency, with my sense that the Patriots have been looking for a market correction of sorts after signing him to a four-year extension in 2015 that made him the highest-paid player at his position (and hasn't been surpassed by any kicker). Gostkowski is returning from a one-week, NFL-sponsored USO Tour on Sunday, and one would think his status will be solidified, one way or the other, by the draft on April 25-27.
5. When a team raises its ticket prices, it usually generates headlines, with the revitalized Chicago Bears one example this year. If a team is going to raise ticket prices, it often helps it to do so after a successful or championship season, so it's notable to me that the Patriots aren't doing so this year. In fact, they haven't done so in four of their past five Super Bowl championship seasons. Season-ticket holders had a March 31 deadline for renewal, and a team spokesman relayed that the renewal rate is over 99 percent for this year. It is usually in the 96 percent range. My Business 101 takeaway: Everyone, except for those on the waiting list, is coming out a winner here.
6. From the skepticism-that-Rob Gronkowski's-retirement-is-permanent department: When Westgate Las Vegas Superbook was asked for hypothetical odds on a prop bet for Gronkowski's return, it provided much stronger odds that Gronkowski will stay retired in 2019. As part of the hypothetical bet, someone who believes Gronkowski is returning would have to put down $100 to win $300. But someone who believes Gronkowski won't play again would have to put down $400 to win $100. Count Jets safety Jamal Adams among the skeptics. He told New York reporters, "He'll be back, he'll be back. He ain't fooling me."
7. Once the calendar hits May 7 this year, teams can sign compensatory free agents from other teams and not have it count against the formula for 2020 compensatory draft picks. The Patriots project to receive two third-rounders and one sixth-rounder next year, according to Nick Korte of OverTheCap.com, and adding another compensatory free agent before May 7 could alter their supply of picks. This is the type of thing that can frustrate agents who are trying to find their clients jobs, but also something that smart teams keep in mind to protect their assets. So if free-agent defensive tackle Allen Bailey (Chiefs) is still available after May 7, perhaps the Patriots would be more motivated to close a deal with him at that point after visiting with him early in free agency.
8. With the late Leon Gray being elected into the Patriots Hall of Fame via a seniors committee vote on Thursday, the Pro Football Hall of Famer who played alongside him couldn't have been happier. "It was a long, long time coming," John Hannah said in a telephone interview.
Something different: Starting center David Andrews will announce the Patriots' third-round pick(s) at the NFL Draft. This is part of a league initiative in which later-round picks announce selections across the league. Andrews, of course, was undrafted out of Georgia in 2015.— Mike Reiss (@MikeReiss) April 4, 2019
Gray played left tackle for the Patriots from 1973 to 1978, and among other things, he helped pave the way for the legendary 1978 attack that gained 3,165 rushing yards, which remains a single-season NFL record today.
"You didn't have to worry about Leon. He was going to get it done. When a tackle has that type of ability, it frees up everybody else. And they play off each other," Hannah said. "What I was amazed about with Leon, he was working like a dog, but he made it look so easy. Smooth. He had such good feet. People underestimate just how strong he was. He was just a great offensive tackle."
Some view the Gray-Hannah combination at left tackle-left guard as one of the greatest in league history, which was something they both took pride in during their careers.
"I used to run a little football camp in my hometown each summer and Leon would come down. Ken Hutchinson, who played in Seattle, was there, and we were showing the kids how you have to work together. After we were done, Hutch came over to us and said, 'You two look like the ballet together.' [Gene] Upshaw and [Art] Shell had that left-side attack in the late '60s/early '70s, and then Leon and I came about, and we kind of took over from them for a few years until the Sullivans decided to trade him away."
9. It might take some more investigative reporting to get to the bottom of it, but I think I have a good idea why starting center David Andrews was the choice to announce the Patriots' third-round pick(s) during the NFL draft. Andrews is a big country music fan -- the draft is being hosted in Nashville -- and it's an all-expenses paid trip as part of a league initiative. Ah, yes, another reason Andrews is considered one of the Patriots' smartest players.
10. The defending champion Patriots will be honored Tuesday afternoon at the Red Sox's home opener, which is a kind gesture from baseball's defending champs on a day that is already filled with anticipation and excitement. Unfortunately, with many Patriots players still out of town before the official start of the voluntary offseason program, it would be a surprise to see a high total of front-line starters as part of the celebration.