Special teamer Matthew Slater is the longest tenured member of the New England Patriots after quarterback Tom Brady signed with Tampa Bay and kicker Stephen Gostkowski was cut. Associated Press/Adam Hunger

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – When the New England Patriots are working on offensive and defensive drills, it’s common to see one man sprinting up and down an adjacent field, maybe with a coach, maybe by himself.

Matthew Slater didn’t become the best special teamer in the league by accident. And it’s not a coincidence that he’s held onto that title for a decade now. Though he’s been to eight Pro Bowls, has won three Super Bowls and turns 35 in September, Slater is still laser-focused on being the best gunner in the league.

“I realize I’m in a very unique position, but I try to just focus in and find joy in my work each and every day and try to refine my craft,” Slater said. “I never feel like I’ve done enough. I always feel like the coaches are challenging me to be better, but no one challenges me more than myself. And I enjoy the process. It is a very unique situation that I’m in.

“Sometimes you feel like, ‘Man, I wonder how my guys are doing over there in the receiver room’ or ‘I wonder how my guys are doing on the back end in the secondary.’ But there’s plenty of time for me to catch up with them. My focus is just on trying to get better and trying to work and again earn my way onto this football team.”

Though the job may seem a simple one – beat your coverage and tackle the returner – Slater hasn’t gotten complacent. The special teams ace is still trying to learn little tricks of the trade heading into his 13th season.

“I do think there are things that I can be taught to do,” Slater said. “I look at players like Justin Bethel or Cody Davis, and then having a chance to work with them now hand in hand, there are things that they do as a part of their game that I don’t do as well, and I think that I can try to incorporate those things.

“The saying goes, ‘You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.’ This old dog is still trying to learn new tricks. I embrace that challenge. I think you should never get to a place where you feel like you have it all figured out. You should always be searching for more knowledge, more understanding of the game and trying to improve yourself. I think when that process stops — when you stop evolving in that way — then it’s probably time for you to stop playing. And I don’t think I’ve reached that point yet.”

WHEN YOU LOOK at the tight end depth chart for the Patriots, you notice a couple things.

First, there’s a lot of rookies. Second, there are not many veterans.

Those two facts have elevated Ryan Izzo as one of the leaders of this young position group. A 2018 seventh-round pick, Izzo has tried to provide guidance for rookies Devin Asiasi, Dalton Keene and Jake Burt and newcomers Alex Ellis and Paul Butler.

“I think I’m trying to be a little more vocal,” Izzo said. “We’ve got a lot of young guys in the room who haven’t been through fall camp, haven’t been through this process, so for me, it’s just doing whatever I can to help them out.”

Izzo has shown some flashes in the past two offseasons that would suggest he has what it takes to be a solid blocking tight end. After spending the 2018 season on injured reserve, Izzo played in six games last year, making six receptions for 114 yards and a touchdown. This offseason, he attached himself to Jarrett Stidham in the hopes of getting ahead for training camp.

Izzo knows he still has a lot to prove and says he feels like he’s playing better. Of course, he has a lot of competition with Asiasi and Keene, who were both selected in the third round.

“They’re hard-working guys with their heads on straight,” Izzo said. “I’m excited to get to work with them for the rest of fall camp and continue to get to know them.”

THE PATRIOTS WERE missing two of their most important players in practice Thursday morning.

Reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore and wide receiver N’Keal Harry were absent. It’s Gilmore’s first absence, while Harry has missed back-to-back days.

Other new absences included safety Adrian Phillips and lineman Yodny Cajuste, while running backs Sony Michel and Lamar Miller, and defensive linemen Beau Allen, Derek Rivers and Tashawn Bower were all missing again.

After three straight days on the shelf, undrafted wide receiver Jeff Thomas made his training camp debut.

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