FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- When the Patriots signed veteran running back Leon Washington to a one-year, $1.2 million contract on March 14, it represented an immediate boost to a kickoff return game that has been inconsistent over the last two-plus years.
Washington, whose contract included a $360,000 signing bonus, was the NFC's Pro Bowl returner in 2012.
But things took an unexpected course for Washington in New England and it started with the draft-day acquisition of running back LeGarrette Blount. That added another layer to the running back depth chart, and when the Patriots later experimented with Blount returning kickoffs, it ultimately squeezed Washington off the roster as he was released Sunday.
If indeed a permanent decision, time will tell if it's something the Patriots will come to regret.
Meanwhile, Blount's potential role as a kickoff returner was one of the more interesting topics that came up at Gillette Stadium on Monday, as it's rare to see a 250-pound player as a returner. Blount is one of the top candidates to replace Washington, along with speedy rookie receiver Josh Boyce.
"I've been practicing it the whole time I've been here," said Blount, who hasn't returned kickoffs since doing so sparingly at University of Oregon and before that more regularly at Taylor County High School in Perry, Fla. "I like it. It's something different."
Blount added that he likes how the Patriots have shown confidence in him to handle the role because "that's not usually a position a guy my size is usually in. I just like the fact I can go out there and hopefully make things happen."
Blount had one return for 27 yards in the preseason, which came in the team's Aug. 22 loss to the Lions. He said he's been tapping the advice of some of some teammates who have returned kickoffs in the past, such as safety Devin McCourty and receivers Julian Edelman and Matthew Slater.
The Patriots ranked 25th in kickoff return average last season (21.2 avg.), while the Seahawks, led by Washington, were second (27.1 avg.).