Anytime the New England Patriots make a roster transaction, it becomes a league-wide story because of the organization's successful track record.
Head coach Bill Belichick has developed a reputation as one of the greatest coaches in NFL history, and it's not simply because of his X's and O's mastery. Belichick is a player development wizard, who seemingly gets the most out of nearly every player on his roster.
On Wednesday, reports circulated that the Patriots signed wide receiver Matt Slater to a contract extension worth $1.8 million, and if you're like most NFL consumers, you were probably left wondering why you didn't recognize Slater's name.
A Patriots wide receiver making nearly two million per year? And you can't seem to figure out why Slater's name is unfamiliar.
That's probably because Slater has been a wide receiver for the Patriots since 2008, and he has one career reception.
None of this adds up, and it probably shouldn't, until you realize that Slater is a wide receiver in title only. One of the league's premier special teams players, Slater is highly regarded in NFL circles for his punt coverage skills, and his presence on all four coverage and return units for the Patriots.
The Arizona Cardinals are familiar with the Slater-types, who exist on nearly every NFL roster, because of the play of Justin Bethel. Bethel is one of the NFL's premier specialists, but over the course of the last year, the Cardinals have asked him to expand upon his skill set and take on a much larger role within the organization.
Like Slater, Bethel also commands more than $1.5 million annually, but unlike Slater, the Cardinals now want more for their money. After allowing Jerraud Powers to walk in free agency, Arizona penciled Bethel in as a contender for the starting cornerback job opposite Patrick Peterson, and the Presbyterian alum is still in the midst of a competition.
Three years ago, Bethel was beloved for his efforts by Cardinals fans, but hardly known by casual NFL fans. Such is life for NFL specialists like Slater and Bethel, who carve out niches, rack up Pro Bowl appearances, and sneak onto rosters proving it's possible to be a low-profile professional football player .These days, Cardinals fans aren't as enamored of Bethel, as they have adopted the mentality of the team's management in wanting Bethel to give the team more.
Maybe Bethel does work out as a starter-caliber corner, but maybe he doesn't. Either way, Bethel's transition leaves the Cardinals with a void they don't necessarily have to fill, but one they might want to anyway. That void comes in the form of a dedicated specialist.
Before a training camp starts, it's impossible to predict which players might fit in special teams-only roles. Take your pick of undrafted wide receivers or practice squad-eligible defensive backs, but there's no exact science to it.
Even last week, it's hard to imagine anyone outside of the Cardinals' coaching staff and management would have guessed undrafted rookie linebacker Lamar Louis would challenge for a specialist role with Arizona, but heading into Thursday night's preseason finale, Louis is still hanging around.
The LSU product, who made three starts at linebacker during his senior season for the Tigers and worked out as a running back in pre-draft workouts, had an outstanding special teams performance on Sunday in Houston. On three separate occasions, Louis was the first player down the field on the Cardinals' kick coverage units, roaring past Texans upbacks and coming up with crucial tackles.
Throughout camp, Louis has been working with the Cardinals third team defense as an inside linebacker. Louis shifted between inside and outside linebacker at LSU, but like Slater, his position label hardly matters. Louis wouldn't see the field for meaningful defensive reps in a regular season contest, so evaluating his run-stopping capabilities isn't exactly worthwhile.
What is worthwhile though, is Louis' potential as a specialist. General manager Steve Keim and head coach Bruce Arians have insisted the Cardinals need to improve their special teams units this year, and Louis looks like an instant upgrade.
Are veteran backups like running back Chris Johnson and outside linebacker Alex Okafor contributing on special teams in a meaningful way? Hardly. And as backups, every rep they don't take on special teams forces the Cardinals to look for another player who may not be ideally suited to kick coverage or open field blocking to take the field. NFL teams are limited to using 46 players on game days, and every player who can't offer the team help in a special teams capacity decreases their overall value.
That's why keeping Louis on the active roster makes sense. Sure, Louis may not register a defensive rep all season, but Slater has one career catch in nearly a decade as a "wide receiver" for the Patriots. There is inherent value in having special teams playmakers on a roster, and because of Bethel's work, the Cardinals know what a specialist can mean to a team's overall success.
When Louis takes the field in Thursday night's preseason finale, the Cardinals may not know whether it's worth it to keep another special teams contributor on their final roster. But if Louis replicates his efforts from Sunday's game and demonstrates the ability to dominate, he may could end up forcing the Cardinals' hand.