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On Patriots special teams, the big questions concern Matthew Slater and Nick Folk

No one covers kickoffs the way Matthew Slater does.
No one covers kickoffs the way Matthew Slater does.Matthew J. Lee/Matthew J. Lee/Globe staff

Ninth in a position-by-position series: Quarterback | Running back | Wide receiver | Tight end | Offensive line | Defensive line | Linebacker | Secondary

In the pantheon of prodigious Patriots players, Matthew Slater deserves a special spot.

A three-time Super Bowl champion and nine-time Pro Bowler — that’s two more all-star games than his Hall of Fame father, Jackie, was invited to — Slater is widely regarded as the best kick-coverage player of his generation and possibly the best the NFL has ever seen.

He’s certainly in the conversation.

“Got to be at the top,’' Bill Belichick said in December when asked where Slater stood among the best special teamers in history. “I can’t think of anybody that’s done more than he has. And he’s done it over a very consistent period of time at an extremely high level.

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“We’ve had some great players here, and I’ve had some great players through my career — in Cleveland, going back to the Giants — but he’s certainly the very best that I’ve ever been around and that we’ve had to play against, as well. His consistency is outstanding, he factors in on a lot of plays.’'

Watching Slater dust blockers — often beating double-teams — before bolting down the field at warp speed to chop down return men has been one of the most entertaining parts of watching the Patriots the last 13 seasons.

Could his run be done?

Slater, 35, was noncommittal about his plans for 2021, though he is under contract for another season.

“Obviously, there’s got to be a desire from the organization to want me back here,” he said. “I don’t see myself playing anywhere else. So, we’ll be praying about that like we have the last couple of years, and if we feel like the Lord is telling us to do something, we want to be obedient in that way.”

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Slater’s play hasn’t dipped a bit, and the 10-time captain remains a beacon in the locker room, so it’s likely the club’s desire to bring him back will be there. If Slater decides he’s done, it would leave a huge void on multiple levels in the organization.

A look at the current state of the specialists and what predraft moves the Patriots could explore this offseason.

The 2020 Patriots

Justin Bethel (coverage), Cody Davis (coverage), Brandon King (coverage), Joe Cardona (long snapper), Jake Bailey (punter/kickoffs), Nick Folk (kicker), Justin Rohrwasser (kicker), Roberto Aguayo (kicker), Gunner Olszewski (punt/kick returner), Donte Moncrief (kick returner).

Bethel: Built in the Slater mode, the impending free agent is an elite gunner who gets downfield in a blink and seemingly lands the initial hit on every play. Led the club with 14 special teams tackles, and the Patriots will make a push to keep him in Foxborough.

Davis: Slid into the multiple roles previously held by Nate Ebner, including personal punt protector, and excelled. Another free agent-to-be, he collected nine special teams tackles and would be welcomed back on another short deal.

King: Devastating open-field hitter, the speed burner hasn’t played a regular-season game since 2018 because of injuries. King has one year left on his deal.

Cardona: Simply put, he’s the most consistent player at his position six years running.

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Bailey: First-team All-Pro. He can blast moon ball after moon ball but also has the skill to drop punts inside the 20. Additionally, can blast kickoffs to Timbuktu or chip them 9-iron style inside the 5-yard line to let his platoon of coverage guys get downfield and play kill the man with the ball.

Folk: Just an amazing 2020 for the 13-year veteran. Missed his first two field goal attempts, then went 26 for 26 to close the season, which included a pair of buzzer-beating game-winners. He’s a free agent and interested in continuing his career. This bears watching as the club has two kickers on the practice squad.

Rohrwasser: The fifth-round rookie had a miserable camp, and it’s unclear whether he was dealing with an injury. He spent the year on the practice squad and will get a do-over this summer.

Aguayo: Was signed to the practice squad after two years out of the league. Was a second-round pick in 2016 but never lived up to his college billing: He was 69 of 78 on field goals and 198 for 198 on PATs at Florida State.

Olszewski: First-team All-Pro. Returns punts without fear, with his 70-year touchdown his signature moment. A camp story line to watch: Will Olszewski duplicate Julian Edelman’s path to success, morphing from special teams standout out to vital offensive cog? Olszewski has already packed more muscle on his frame, and that should continue.

Moncrief: Provided a late-season veteran boost and is under contract for another year. A receiver by trade, he will benefit from a full camp working this offense.

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The bottom line

It’s pretty simple. Retain Slater, Bethel, and Davis and the coverage units are set. There’s no doubt there will be a summer-long kicking competition. The big question is: Will it be between Rohrwasser and Aguayo or will Folk be back?



Jim McBride can be reached at james.mcbride@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globejimmcbride.