The San Francisco 49ers could be more active in free agency than first anticipated. Reports have surfaced that the club has been in talks with the New York Jets about running back/special teams ace Leon Washington. Judging from some of the message boards on the report (SFgate.com), I am in the minority when I say I’d be ecstatic about having Washington as the return man. I even have a nickname awaiting his arrival. The future “Scarlet Speedster” has averaged 25.5 yards a kick return and 9.4 yards on punts. The little guy was born to elude tacklers and use his 4.42 speed to race to the end zone. His services would not come for free of course.
Washington is a restricted free agent, and is tendered with a second rounder. If the 49ers offer a deal to Washington, the Jets can either match it, or accept a second round pick from the 49ers as compensation. This is where most fans become divided. The 49ers second round pick is the 49th overall. Good, talented prospects will still be on the board. A second round pick for a return man is a little steep, but we know Washington can play. The front office wouldn’t be gambling on a prospect. He is an experienced, explosive return specialist. The two first round picks should also lessen the blow of not having three selections in the first 50 picks. With Washington, there wouldn’t be any questions, he is a reliable kick returner who can take it the distance.
The biggest problem I feel is the depth already at running back. Frank Gore is the best player on offense, and he is fully capable of carrying the ball 20-25 times a game. He is however a bit of an injury concern. He has only played in all 16 games once in his five year career. Current back-up Glen Coffee had a chance to start when Gore went down, but he averaged 2.7 yards a carry. Michael Robinson would be the odd man out should any move occur. In four season with the 49ers, Robinson has not been able to find his niche. Throughout his time with the Jets, Washington has learned how to share the workload. He isn’t the typical size you’d like as a running back, but he has no fear going through the middle. I’m sure he doesn’t want to be relegated exclusively to special teams, and he would make a great third down back. Both he and Gore are excellent receivers, forcing the defense to worry about another dimension at all times.
A second round pick for the Scarlet Speedster would not be too high of a cost. He would probably demand a pretty high contract for a return man/running back, but after last season, I witnessed how important it is to have good field position. Imagine some of the losses could have been won if the offense had to go 10-25 yards less than they actually did. The main focus in the draft would be where they need it the most. The holes along the offensive line are so wide, even Scott Norwood wouldn’t be wide right. Without worrying about special teams, the 49ers can focus on the o-line first, then a pass rusher. It would also be nice to have some depth in the secondary. The revolving door of Nate Clements, Dre’ Bly, and Tarell Brown didn’t work out too well. Michael Lewis isn’t getting any younger or less concussed. The more needs taken care of before the draft will allow the 49ers to have more options come late April.