Chemistry, kickoff return boost & more

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- July and the start of training camp may still be a few months away, but for New England Patriots players, the start of the voluntary offseason program on Monday still felt like the first day of school.

"It's good to be back with your teammates and around those guys," special teams captain Matthew Slater said Thursday. "It's been a while. That camaraderie kicks in right away."

Slater, who enters his sixth season in New England, offered a glowing review of one of the team's offseason acquisitions, running back/returner Leon Washington, who Slater faced in 2008 and 2009 when Washington was with the Jets and last season in a game against the Seahawks.

"I have a tremendous amount of respect for what Leon has accomplished in his career. He's been one of the elite returners that this league has ever seen," Slater said. "I think he's tied with Mr. (Josh) Cribbs for the most kickoff returns for touchdowns."

Slater hopes that Washington, who he met at the Pro Bowl in January, can improve a Patriots kickoff return unit that finished 25th in the NFL last season.

"He's a weapon in that department and in that phase of the game. Something that we obviously needed improvement on," he said. "So hopefully he can give us a boost."

The Patriots have added several players through free agency this offseason, and Slater believes that the team has made several high-character additions.

"We have some good character guys who are going to come in here," Slater said. "I really feel like they're going to buy into the Patriot Way and do things the right way. They came ready to work."

Not surprisingly, the message that Slater and defensive end Rob Ninkovich sent to reporters on Thursday was that they are just beginning their preparations for this season.

"We're a long ways from being able to put a team out of the field that's going to compete," Slater said. "You have to enjoy the process. That's something that a lot of us enjoy and something that a lot of people don't see, but that's where the season is made, in the offseason."