The New England Patriots thought they were picking up the impact return specialist they craved back in August of last year when they signed Olympic track athlete Jeff Demps as an undrafted free agent, but the former Florida Gators star running back decided that he wanted to continue to pursue track. Not only did Demps want to continue to do both sports, but it also seemed like Demps was prioritizing track. Even though the Patriots did not release Demps, it did seem like his time would be up in New England once they started taking a look at returners early on in free agency in Josh Cribbs and Leon Washington. All I can say is that I am thankful the Patriots decided to sign Washington, because Cribbs is a useless player on offense who overvalues his own talents (just ask the Cleveland Browns) financially as a return man.
Leon Washington was released by the Seattle Seahawks early on in free agency, but it had nothing to do with performance. The Seahawks had just acquired an impact wide receiver and returner in Percy Harvin, who some Patriots fans wanted, and had no place for a $2.875 million return man (no matter how great). The Tampa Bay Buccaneers immediately showed interest in Washington, as they, like the Patriots, also craved a returner with the ability of Washington (the Bucs were reportedly interested in trading for Washington before his release). Instead, Washington met with the Pats a day later and promptly signed a one-year deal worth $1.5 million at the meeting.
The 30-year-old Florida State product will give the New England Patriots their first great kick-off returner in a while, and the Patriots special teams unit looks strong all-around now. Not only are the coverage units incredible, the kicking great, and the punting solid, but now the punt and kick-off return specialists are also great (Julian Edelman on punts and Washington on kick-offs, though I would be more than happy to see Washington take care of punts as well).
Last season, Washington had 784 kick-off return yards and a touchdown with 356 punt return yards, but that was the first season in his career with the Seahawks in which he had less than 1,000 kick return yards. Twice in Washington’s career (once with the New York Jets) has the 5’8″ running back returner three kick-offs for touchdowns.
Leon Washington is the elite returner that the Patriots needed, and he can also make a small impact as a pass-catcher out of the backfield if needed. He presents good depth as a rusher and receiver to the Patriots deep and talented backfield, with his most important asset being his terrific ability as a returner. Washington is also much more of a sure-thing than Jeff Demps, who is now the Bucs potential impact returner they crave (the Patriots received LeGarrette Blount from the Bucs in exchange for a seventh-round pick and Demps, who was also heavily targeted by the Bucs back in August).
With Washington in New England, I couldn’t be happier with the way things have shaken out for the Patriots. We’ll see how much of an impact Washington has next season, and I can tell you that field position and special teams are two underrated aspects of the game. The better field position will be a solid gain for the offense, and it will also be interesting to see if the Patriots just use Washington exclusively for returns.