They're Still Catching Up
Rookie Redskins Wideouts Thomas, Kelly Have Yet to Make Impact

By Jason Reid
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 2, 2008

The conversations occur during practice and in the privacy of the locker room. That's where Washington Redskins veteran wide receivers Santana Moss and Antwaan Randle El do their part to educate rookie wideouts Devin Thomas and Malcolm Kelly.

It has been a team effort, coaches and players said, and the process is going slowly.

"You pull 'em along and get 'em to understand that this is more of your life now. This is your livelihood," Randle El said. "It's not just going to class, waking up and then going to practice. This is all you have, and a lot of people are depending on you."

The only backup wide receivers on the 53-man roster, Thomas and Kelly are off to shaky starts. They incurred the wrath of Coach Jim Zorn for their poor conditioning at the beginning of training camp and fell behind while rehabbing from injuries. Kelly's lingering knee problem is such a concern that the team has considered putting him on injured reserve, which would end his season.

Vinny Cerrato, in his first season as executive vice president of football operations, traded out of the first round and used two of the team's three second-round picks to select Thomas and Kelly, hoping to bolster a receiving corps that lacked depth and versatility last season. Wide receiver, however, again appears to be among the most at-risk units on the roster.

Although the coaching staff has indicated it does not expect contributions from them early in the season, Thomas and Kelly must show improvement because they could be needed in 2008. The Redskins plan to use Pro Bowl tight end Chris Cooley often in four-receiver sets, but if Thomas and Kelly do not make strides soon, Moss, Randle El and No. 3 wideout James Thrash could wear down from their increased workload. (Randle El and Moss also play special teams.) Even if he was physically sound, Kelly would not be active Thursday against the New York Giants because he has not fully grasped the playbook, Zorn said after practice yesterday at Redskins Park.

"When you've been playing in this league for a while, you know all you can do is what you can do," Moss said. "I'm not worried about what we don't have right now. I'm just going to be the best that I can be at my position. I can't worry about the other stuff that comes along with this game. Last year, we had stuff going on, and this year we have stuff going on. But like life, things happen and you just have to be able to roll with it when it comes."

Moss, the Redskins' top wide receiver, was slowed because of groin, heel and hamstring injuries last season. Randle El was hampered by a recurring hamstring injury, and a consistent No. 3 threat never emerged from a unit that was in flux from the start because of injuries.

Free agent bust Brandon Lloyd continued to disappoint before breaking his collarbone in November and was released in February. The Redskins brought in free agents Reche Caldwell and Keenan McCardell -- at 37 the oldest wide receiver in the league last year -- and signed Anthony Mix from the Giants' practice squad during the season.

Cerrato determined the overall talent at the position was not sufficient for Zorn's West Coast scheme that features many three- and four-receiver sets. The Redskins, who did not re-sign Caldwell and McCardell and waived Mix on Saturday, focused exclusively on their receiving corps with their top three picks. Pass-catching tight end Fred Davis was selected after Thomas but before Kelly, and is behind Cooley on the depth chart.

The Redskins in 2007 lacked a big target for quarterback Jason Campbell, and Thomas (6 feet 2, 218 pounds) and Kelly (6-4, 227) are the biggest wideouts on the roster. Kelly's height and leaping ability could create matchup problems in the red zone, but only if he plays.

Drafted from Oklahoma, Kelly slid down several draft boards because of questions about his willingness to play through injuries. He was among the Redskins' most impressive rookies early in camp, coaches and players said, having made a good impression with his receiving and blocking skills while playing the X receiver, or split end position. He appeared to be far ahead of Thomas, the team's top pick, who started out at the Z receiver, or flanker.

Kelly, initially slowed in camp because of a hamstring injury, underwent arthroscopic surgery Aug. 4 on his left knee and missed the preseason. Kelly was supposed to make his pro debut last Thursday in Washington's final preseason game, but his knee became swollen in pregame warmups.

Because of Kelly's situation, the Redskins strongly considered carrying six wide receivers on the roster set Saturday, Zorn said, especially considering the strong performance of Billy McMullen, who led the team in receiving in the preseason and was among the players coaches often praised. "It was a matter of making a very difficult decision," Zorn said. "It wasn't necessarily a numbers game. It was a tough decision of keeping one guy over another."

Said Campbell: "With Malcolm, we're not sure about everything that's going on. With Devin, we're constantly bringing him along."

Bubba Tyer, Washington's director of sports medicine, and the medical staff have continued to work with Kelly, but Zorn acknowledged Kelly probably would have to "play with some pain" this season. For his part, Kelly is confident he can succeed in the NFL "because football is football," he said. "That's one thing a lot of the veteran guys keep telling me. Just because this is the NFL, you can't start putting pressure on yourself. If you can play, you can play. I've just got to get my knee right."

Moss has become a mentor for Kelly. He has initiated conversations about a variety of topics with Kelly -- life off the field included.

"Me and Malcolm talk a lot more than probably me and Devin," Moss said. "I don't even let Malcolm ask me a question. I tell him stuff before he even asks me. I think of something, or see him, or see what's going on with him, and I just go out and say: 'Hey, do this. Or start doing this. Or try to be better at this.' They need that."

Thomas has appeared overwhelmed by his new surroundings. Drafted from Michigan State, Thomas, who also missed time because of a hamstring injury, ran wrong routes, appeared tentative on kickoff returns and often was out of position in three preseason games.

"One guy can't get on the field, and the other guy, he's not ready yet," said offensive coordinator Sherman Smith, alluding to Kelly and Thomas. "We need guys, particularly the backups, to understand that they have to show up to play every week."

Hoping to make up ground quickly, Thomas recently changed his study habits, "doing extra film, taking the DVDs home and watching them," Thomas said. "I'm really looking at my playbook, so I know what I'm doing when it comes to game day so I can run full speed and know what I'm doing."

Despite slow starts to their NFL careers, Thomas and Kelly possess the talent to become productive wide receivers, the Redskins said, but they have no more time to waste.

"This pays the bills. If you don't have that down, you'll be out of here quick," Randle El said. "Those are two things I always tell them will keep them from playing: being out of shape and not knowing that playbook. You can have all the talent in the world, a lot of guys up here had talent, but that's the thing that gets them out."

Staff writer Jason La Canfora contributed to this report.

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