Leon Washington: Best Fits for Return Specialist After Reported Cut by Seahawks

Tyler Conway@jtylerconwayFeatured ColumnistMarch 12, 2013

January 24, 2013; Honolulu, HI, USA; NFC running back Leon Washington of the Seattle Seahawks (33) runs the ball during practice for the 2013 Pro Bowl at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

One day after acquiring Percy Harvin from the Minnesota Vikings, the Seattle Seahawks are parting ways with the man whom he will be replacing (partially). According to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, the Seahawks are planning to release running back and return specialist Leon Washington:

Ostensibly, this opens up both return jobs for Harvin. Washington had manned the punt and kick return duties since coming over from the New York Jets in 2010.  Despite what has to be a difficult situation for him and his family, Washington was very upbeat about his release (via Twitter):

Now, though, the true fun begins. Washington will enter a market at a key age for speedsters (30) and will have to compete against plenty of other top-shelf names for the almighty dollar.

The days when teams had visions of Washington as a usable NFL running back are over. He's an "only if we're desperate on third down" runner and return specialist. That’s who he is, and Washington has been pretty darned good at it over the course of his career.

Though, at his advancing age, his time is probably running thin, any team that could land Washington on a short-term deal should at least look into the possibility. But for some squads, adding Washington could represent a desperately needed upgrade.

With that in mind, here is a breakdown of the best fits for Washington in free agency (assuming he still gets cut).


Kansas City Chiefs

Already one of the league’s most active offseason teams, Washington could fill a massive need for return help in Kansas City. As with a ton of positions last season, the Chiefs tried to make it work with patchwork solutions—to terrible results.

Shaun Draughn was mostly the man in charge of handling kickoffs. The second-year running back, who was known as “Lightning” in college at North Carolina, was about as fearsome as drizzling rain to opposing special teams. He averaged just 23.3 yards per return—ranking 21st among the 23 players who qualified to count among the league leaders—and his long of the season was a disconcerting 41 yards.

As a result, Football Outsiders’ advanced measurements say Kansas City’s kick return game cost the team 9.8 points in the 2012 season. That’s the second-worst rate in the league, and the special teams did not score a return touchdown on all year long.  

On the punt return side of things, Javier Arenas did a better job—but not by much. Arenas averaged 8.7 yards per return, a rate that ranked a more “respectable” 19th among 27 qualifiers. He had a long of 27 yards and cost the Chiefs “only” 5.6 points with his lack of explosiveness.

Granted, it’s certainly noteworthy that Washington ranked slightly worse than Arenas in punt returns, but he also averaged 29 yards per return on kicks—second in the league—and broke off more long returns than Arenas on punts (a long of 57 yards).

With Andy Reid and Co. making moves all over the place, it will be interesting to see whether they place a call into Washington. The team struggled so much to create explosive plays other than ones created by Jamaal Charles, and at the very least, Washington is a guy who commands respect.


Dallas Cowboys

Making big moves this offseason is probably out of the question for the Cowboys. They began free agency with a minuscule $175,000 in cap space (per ESPN’s Calvin Watkins), which will render them literally unable to sign any free agent (even to a minimum contract) or any of their draft choices until making more moves.

And this is a good time to remind you that the Cowboys have seemingly restructured every star-worthy contract on their roster. Miles Austin, Jason Witten and DeMarcus Ware have already done the salary cap shuffle, and there has already been talk (via espn.com) of Tony Romo signing an extension, at least partially based on 2013 relief.

So, unsurprisingly, Dallas has not even been tangibly linked to any top-tier free agents. Barring something unforeseen, Jerry Jones will have to hope his scouts find some diamonds in the rough in April and on the free-agent market.

One player in the latter category could be Washington. Though Dwayne Harris performed wonderfully overall in punt returns, he and the remainder of Dallas’ specialists were benign in the kick return game. For all of the Shaun Draughn-related amusement we had in the previous section, it was actually the Cowboys who finished as the worst kickoff return team in the NFL—costing themselves a whopping 10.9 points.

Considering Washington struggled (relatively) as a punt returner last season, Dallas could be a perfect fit. Harris could continue returning punts, where he was worth 8.4 points in 2012, while Washington could man kickoffs, where he added a positive 9.1 points for the Seahawks.

More importantly—at least from Dallas’ perspective—Washington will come cheap. Teams weren’t even willing to give up a seventh-round choice for his previous contract, which paid a $1 million roster bonus and $1.5 million in salary (per ESPN’s Mike Sando).

It seems highly unlikely he’ll land anything close to that kind of money.

A possible difference-maker at a minimal cost? That should be exactly the type of player the Cowboys kick the tires on.


Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Money will not be a problem for the Buccaneers this offseason. They walked into the spring session as one of the most cash-flush teams in the league, with just $92.50 million in cap commitments, per Spotrac.

Defensive help, particularly in the secondary, will likely wind up eating up much of that room. The Bucs were dreadful against the pass last season, traded away top corner Aqib Talib midway through the campaign and retained just one usable piece in the secondary overall (safety Mark Barron). But with the quarterback, running back and wide receiver positions essentially under lockdown, Tampa can afford to focus mostly on defense.

What it cannot do in the process is completely ignore the special teams. The team ranked 28th in the NFL in special teams DVOA (per Football Outsiders) and had just two areas (field goals/extra points and kicking) where it ranked above the league average.

In the return game, the Buccaneers lost a total of 9.9 points. Greg Schiano could not find a returner on whom he could rely, as Arrelious Benn had the most kick returns with just 13. Roscoe Parrish almost solely handled the punt return duties but failed to score and averaged fewer than 10 yards per attempt.

Delving into special teams always seems a bit nitpicky. Over the course of the season, it doesn’t seem like there is that significant of a difference between league average and low rent. But just for reference, the difference between Seattle’s kick return points (9.1) and Tampa Bay’s (minus-6.8) is 15.9 points. Since fractional points don’t, you know, exist, let’s call it an even 16.

Seven of the Bucs’ nine losses last season came by one score. Does a special teams star take a 3-13 team to the Lombardi Trophy? Of course not. Could having Washington returning kicks instead of their pu-pu platter from last season take the Bucs from a 7-9 team to a 9-7 squad? That’s very possible.

With the cost being rather minimal, Tampa is one of just many teams that could benefit from the presence of a Leon Washington.