Early in training camp, walking up and down the fence-line with Davis Hsu, I remember telling him then that I could see Leon Washington becoming trade bait or even possibly a salary cap casualty this season (he was incredulous to that idea, mind you), but I have sort of reversed gears on that after seeing how well he's run in the first three preseason games. He looked especially effective in week one against Tennessee, with five early rushes for 26 yards, a 5.5 yard per carry clip. My thinking is now more along the lines that if Leon is versatile enough to be a real factor in the run game as a change-of-pace and backup to both Marshawn Lynch and Robert Turbin, this would be a big bonus to his already solid kick and punt returning ability.
Now, apart from his touchdown return against Cleveland that was called back on a block in the back, Leon didn't hit any home runs last season, so the general belief, I think, is that his value as a kick returner doesn't exactly match up with his vested veteran contract.
Jason D commented about that this morning - specifically, about Leon's real value as a true kick/punt return specialist, and his take was wrought with information that I couldn't just let it languish in the commentary section. Jason was responding to Derek's take on Washington's possible roster spot this morning, when Derek responded to the question of Washington being cut. Stephens noted, "I just don't see it happening. Nobody else has emerged as a legit big-play return threat outside of Golden Tate, and even Tate would probably only be used on punt returns. Coye Francies and Phillip Adams have been the other two return men this preseason, but Francies was cut and Adams has done nothing special as a returner. I know Washington's contract isn't league minimum by any means, but you can't go out and re-set every position and hope to get the same impact out of bargain players that you do out of an elite return man like Washington. Building a roster isn't all about cutting costs. Not to mention, Washington has done a lot of the little things well this preseason, both as a blocker and a runner and is a respected leader in the locker room. It's not like the guy has become a liability."
Jason D's response was intriguing, and his research was originally meant as a rebuttal, but sort of turned into an agreement. "I was going to declare "overstated" in regard to Leon's return value," he writes, "given his lack of 2011 touchdowns, and increased touchbacks (from the changed kickoff line and anti-wedge rule). So I pulled up and sorted the 2011 league return stats.
"Leon Washington had 43 kick returns for 1084 yards, an average of 25.2 yds/return. The big question is, where did he run those from? If he started running out from the goal line, then average field position would be (duh) the 25.5 yard line. That would roughly translate to a an EPA (Expected Points Added) of + .254 per return (versus a touchback), or +11.2 points for the whole season's work. Washington finished just 13th in return average (among those with at least 16 kick returns), but the fact that he returned so many more than most means that he contributed about the same season-long +EPA as Percy Harvin (who averaged 32.5 on 16 returns), and only about four guys would be ahead of them (Darren Sproles, Richard Goodman, Randall Cobb, Joe McNight).
"Again, this uses the highly questionable estimate that all kick returns start from the goal line. If Leon's 25-yard returns are starting five yards deep in the end zone, then he's contributing nothing.
"On punt returns, Leon had the 8th-highest average (11.3 yards/return, 41 returns for 464 yards) among players with at least 16 returns. The value here is more obvious, because the alternative to returning a punt is a fair catch for 0 yards. It's also worth noting that returning punts is more difficult; the list of players who can average over 20 yards per kick return goes on and on (any decent DB can catch the ball and sprint 10-20 yards before contact), but the retrun averages for punts drops off very rapidly.
"Overall, Washington was #1 in the league in combined return yardage at 1548, and one of only three players to break 1400 yards. Assuming those kickoff returns are an actual positive, I would say that Washington is an important asset for the return game. But I would also say that the presence of another good punt returner (disregarding kick returns) would make him much more expendable, at least in regard to his return-game value."
Impressive numbers and certainly not something I had considered; the question then becomes, do the Seahawks have another punt returner, outside of Golden Tate, that makes Leon expendable? I honestly doubt it, at this point. Even Golden has been off and on, and his punt returns from last week are a microcosm for his entire career -- inconsistent and a little frustrating -- one incredible 92-yard scamper for a touchdown, followed by another that was muffed, and which he lazily jogged after as it almost went out of bounds at the one yard line (luckily it went into the endzone for a touchback).
Regardless, the punt and kick returns are something to watch closely tonight, because you can assume the Seahawks will be playing their young players for long portions of the game. Will any of them look competent? Pete Carroll takes special teams very seriously and often keeps a special teams dedicated player or two on his roster, with the sole purpose of leading that unit. It was Heath Farwell last season, who led the NFL in special teams tackles.
I've liked Leon Washington since he's been here, and each year I've hoped to see him get more integrated into the offense, and, sadly, it's never happened. He'll get an explosive carry here and there, but last year lost most of his chances to Justin Forsett, who was a great third down back. Even when the Seahawks had to late-scratch Marshawn Lynch last year at Cleveland - the game in which many people still point to as an example of why the Seahawks need a big, bruising tailback in their system - even in that game, Washington averaged 5.6 yards per carry. He was only given the rock seven times though, and the Seahawks only rushed a total of 17 times that game. They got away from their gameplan completely, it seems.
Still, I'm again intrigued with Washington's ability to carry the football out of the backfield - my take is that he's looked very good doing so, and during the preseason back through training camp I've heard a lot from beat reporters about how quick and strong he looks. "100% back from his leg break of 2009." Anyway, for a guy that has a career 4.7 yard per carry average, I can sit here and hope he'll get more touches this year, can't I?
I'm rambling. Anyway - even if my wish to see Leon more involved in the run game never comes to fruition, it's hard to deny that he's certainly done his job in the return game. Will that be enough to keep him on the roster? We'll find out, but I have the feeling he'll be a factor this season for the Seahawks.