NORTH ATTLEBORO, Mass. -- "I’m a running back at heart."
The words were Leon Washington's, said on a conference call after signing with the Patriots this March.
True, it's his listed position, and he'd like to take as many snaps at running back as he can. But Washington knows his value as a return specialist. In 2012, the 30-year old's 29.0 kickoff return average was second-best in the league. The Patriots ranked 25th in that category last season.
Help is needed and he's happy to do his part.
"That was definitely one of the deciding factors when I was looking for a team to sign with, were teams that took special teams seriously and realized that you can win games with special teams," Washington told reporters this Thursday. "Coach [Scott] O'Brien -- I look forward to working with him. I've already had talks with him."
Washington is also excited to get in the trenches with special teams captain Matthew Slater.
"Slate… he's a great guy," the back grinned. "You look at his leadership and you can definitely tell that off the football field, when we're doing workouts, he's definitely a leader. So I look forward to working with him. We chatted a little bit at the  Pro Bowl and he's a great guy. It's just good to have football players that take special teams seriously. And Slate is one guy, you can definitely tell he does."
The body of work for third phase players may not be the game's most glamorous, but it's considered extremely valuable in the locker room. Which is why Washington's recognition and respect for Slater isn't surprising in the least.
"[It's] easy for me because I'm watching film and he's always making plays. Easy for me, just looking at him the last few years, he's just been a tremendous factor for this football team. Not only on special teams, but the leadership in the locker room. Trust me: fans might not know it, but the players around the league know."